California Green Ribbon Schools Award, an Attainable and Worthy Endeavor

The California Green Ribbon Schools Award Program (CA-GRS) recognizes schools and districts making sustainability improvements and acts as a guide to drive meaningful actions to improve school districts’ environmental impact. In this article, California Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program lead, George Garcia, along with educators—and CAELI members—from CA-GRS schools and districts, celebrate the 2023 Green Ribbon Award honorees and share why the program is so meaningful. 

What is the Green Ribbon School Award Program?

In the fall of 2011, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Green Ribbon School Award Program (ED-GRS), designed to honor schools, school districts, and institutes of higher education for excellence across three pillars: resource efficiency, health and wellness, and environmental and sustainability education. The federal award program permits each state to nominate five honorees annually—but in a state as large as California, five honorees are not enough to represent the breadth of work happening statewide. To be able to recognize schools’ work more broadly, the California Department of Education (CDE) created the California Green Ribbon Schools state award in 2014, using the ED-GRS application, to honor an unlimited number of schools and districts based on their achievement level.

The California state-level award establishes a scale based on the federal application that recognizes schools and districts that may not be federal nominees but are doing important work in the three pillar areas. The application is intentionally broad to give applicants a number of possible areas to develop their green skills.

While schools and districts work toward earning state and federal green ribbon awards, the application process itself is valuable as an actionable guide for schools and districts, says George Garcia, CDE Green Ribbon Schools program lead. “The application serves as a self-assessment tool and roadmap toward whole-program sustainability,” Garcia says. “Through the application for the award, school communities discover the sustainable practices they are already doing and the opportunities they have to further their impact on their local environment. Within these changes and with the education that comes from making them, students and staff are able to develop skills and new healthy habits to impact their school and home environments.”

At Santiago STEAM Magnet Elementary School in Saddleback Unified School District, students lead initiatives like waste diversion, sitewide conservation efforts, and eco-conscious upgrades to decades-old infrastructure to solve real-world issues directly affecting their school.

At Redwood High School in Sequoia Union High School District, drip irrigation systems, multiple bioswales, and an emphasis on planting native and drought-tolerant plants contribute to a nearly seventy-eight percent reduction in outdoor water use on campus; and an organic food forest, greenhouse, chicken coop, compost system, and outdoor classroom support hands-on student learning across disciplines.

At Jefferson Elementary School in Carlsbad Unified School District, the school has four gardens and a nutrition program. Students take nutrition and cooking classes, using ingredients from the garden to deepen their understanding of healthy food choices as well as the science and math of cooking.

At Moreno Valley Unified School District in Riverside County, the district’s energy specialist manager (ESM) is responsible for optimizing the use of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), irrigation, and other energy-using systems. The ESM also connects with every school and teacher to share energy conservation, health/wellness, and educational resources.

At Bellarmine College Preparatory, a private school in Santa Clara County, energy is generated onsite using 466 solar panels, and a natural gas cogeneration system heats the pool and showers while generating electricity from the heat of combustion.

These are just a few examples of the innovative, sustainability-focused initiatives happening at CA-GRS recognized schools. Since 2014, schools from across the state have been recognized with the CA-GRS award for their achievements in environmental impact and hands-on environmental education opportunities for students. This year, we celebrate the 2023 CA-GRS honorees as they join an impressive history of sustainability work in the state, driven by the program over the past ten years.

Celebrating 2023 Green Ribbon Schools

The five federal 2023 Green Ribbon honorees from California—Santiago STEAM Magnet Elementary School, Redwood High School, Moreno Valley Unified School District, Jefferson Elementary School, and Bellarmine College Preparatory—are among twenty-six schools, eleven districts, and four postsecondary institutions being honored nationally. In California, twenty-one schools earned state awards at levels including bronze, silver, gold, and green achiever. Garcia says the California Green Ribbon Award program is uniquely valuable “in that the award itself is not a one-and-done process.” Through the iterative application process that includes CDE feedback, applicants are supported on their path toward whole-school sustainability.

Sean McPhetridge, CAELI District Innovation Hub member and superintendent at Cabrillo Unified School District, talks about earning a 2023 Silver California Green Schools district award. “We have been working on various environmental literacy initiatives for years. The California Green Ribbon program served as the perfect way to highlight all of the various efforts that teachers, staff, and students were already undertaking while also providing a way to focus our efforts and set ongoing improvement goals for sustainability.”

As schools work toward Green Ribbon sustainability goals, they are able to identify key areas of focus to drive the biggest impact, and develop programs and initiatives that can serve as a model for other schools. “Momentum has grown significantly over the past few years for district-wide environmental sustainability and environmental literacy efforts, due to grassroots and top-down leadership,” says Julie Hilborn, environmental literacy and sustainability coordinator at the San Mateo County Office of Education and member of CAELI’s County Office of Education Innovation Hub. “Cabrillo [Unified School District] is a model of climate resiliency for other districts to follow, not only in San Mateo County but across California and beyond.”

The growing movement toward school sustainability improvements statewide, and the network of awareness and modeling that has accompanied it, also fuels innovative partnerships and investments into environmental education facilities and opportunities. “One example is the investment our county office has made to provide experiential learning for our students by owning and running two outdoor education centers that allow students to learn about their local riparian ecosystem and the alpine ecosystem of the high Sierra Nevada,” says Tamara Basepayne, director of STEM Programs & Outdoor Education at the San Joaquin County Office of Education and co-lead of the CAELI Professional Learning Innovation Hub. These programs provide relevant, hands-on learning for students and demonstrate the real-life implications of environmental initiatives for California residents. “Our Durham Ferry Outdoor Education Center is located alongside the San Joaquin River, which feeds into the delta which is also the water source for millions of residential and agricultural water users in California.”

Networks for Success

The growing momentum and impact of schools in the Green Ribbon program are amplified by networks of partnership, expertise, and resource-sharing across the state. The CAELI network helps drive connections between schools, educators, community organizations, and sustainability professionals across the state. “This ability to connect folks has really boosted applicants in their sustainable journey,” Garcia says. “The expertise and depth of knowledge of the CAELI membership make it a very valuable network to be a part of.”

CAELI members specifically support CA-GRS applicants through educational, collaborative, and networking opportunities. In 2023, the CDE partnered with Ten Strands, which leads CAELI, to pilot a statewide working group for Green Ribbon schools. Many CAELI members were involved in the group, which served as a community of practice for those serving as project managers or technical assistance providers for Green Ribbon applications.

Also in 2023, CAELI hosted a District Innovation Hub Meet-Up at the Pasadena Green Schools Conference, where educators working toward Green Ribbon improvements heard presentations from past Green Ribbon recipients. And the CAELI District Innovation Hub Webinar Series provides a platform for Green Ribbon awardees to share expertise and resources.

Educators say the CAELI network enables critical collaborations around best practices for changing policy, improving facilities, and supporting environmental and sustainability education. Members of CAELI then apply this network concept to their local regions, creating networks for key constituent leaders to come together and support change efforts across the region.

For example, San Joaquin County runs networks for students, partners, and educators. “We are proud of the connections that our collective of environmental literacy networks have made throughout the year to expand environmental literacy through community partners, teachers, and youth,” Basepayne says. “These networks have culminated the last two years in an environmental literacy summit that celebrates the work of the network and provides opportunities to learn more from each other.”

Become a Green Ribbon School Today

Schools and districts interested in making sustainability improvements can apply to become Green Ribbon schools at any time in their journey. “Apply early,” advises Garcia. “Even if you do not yet have a fully completed application, submit it anyway. Once you’ve applied for the Green Ribbon Schools Award, you can request an application review with a CDE staff member, and learn about how to continuously improve efforts. Every year we see applicants go from very early emerging achievements in the previous year to fully developed sustainable programs the following year. Often, these transformative evolutions come after an application review with us at CDE.”

Basepayne says, for her, the most critical step early in the process is building a team of stakeholders. “Completing the Green Ribbon program takes a lot of collaboration amongst different departments, and having a team to divide and conquer makes the work much easier.” She emphasizes the value of the program’s iterative nature: “Many of our schools and districts are implementing changes and practices that meet the requirements of the program. Applying can help a school or district to know where they are doing great and what areas they have for growth.”

By applying for the Green Ribbon program, schools and districts join a statewide network of resources and support, all working toward a better future.

“There is so much to learn from other districts and schools, and everyone is able to make important steps toward sustainability and environmental literacy, no matter where you are starting,” says McPhetridge. “Think of the California Green Ribbon application as a map instead of a destination. Start where you are, get recognized for the work that staff and students are already doing, and boldly begin!”

Applications are available now. Interested applicants can request a school or district application from the California Green Ribbon Schools web page. The online application period will close at 12:00 P.M. PST on October 27, 2023.

Applicants can reach out to the California Green Ribbon Schools team at at any time with questions.


Photo provided by the California Department of Education.