From its inception in 2014, Redwood Cooperative School has valued environmental sustainability as a key program tenet. From curriculum integrations to environmental project work to community partnerships with environmental agencies and organizations, Redwood students, faculty, staff and families have made numerous improvement efforts. Environmental education, literacy and service learning is so much a part of our school that it is embedded in our vision statement – “Redwood strives to be a regional leader in child-centric, progressive education that creates global citizens and empowered problem solvers with a commitment to community and environment.”
Environmental and wellness initiatives occur throughout the school, including school-wide efforts as well as individual class and group projects. Each year, the school’s Leadership Team surveys the school classrooms, buildings and grounds to find identifiable environmental needs. They then plan and implement improvement projects, involving each student in the school in the process.
At Redwood, reducing solid waste is an ongoing effort. We require each student to bring a water bottle to school and have raised funds to install three water bottle refill stations. To date, this has allowed us to reduce the number of plastic bottles that would have been used and discarded by 16,486. We maintain a school recycling program where each student in the school is educated about proper recycling and then recycles all possible waste. In addition to city collection items, our leadership team has expanded this to include collecting and recycling unique items, such as markers, squeezable food containers and additional plastics that the city does not recycle. During the summer before the 2019/20 school year, Lexington announced that it would no longer be able to collect and recycle paper. Rather than throwing our paper in the trash and contributing to landfill waste, our fourth and fifth grade students took on the challenge of collecting and recycling or repurposing all of the paper that our school produces. After educating each student in the school about the importance of recycling paper, they distributed special collection bins to each class. Each week, they collect paper and turn it into goods or use it for purposes around the school. They make paper bead necklaces, fire starters, plant pots and even built a chair for the preschoolers! The remaining paper is shredded and used as bedding in our school chicken coops, in our worm bin and in our regular compost bins. Additionally, our leadership team has begun a cell phone recycling project with a goal of collecting 300 used cell phones to take to the Cincinnati Zoo for their cell phone recycling program that helps protect gorilla habitats. With the help of a climate literacy grant, awarded by the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education and the Kentucky University Partnership for Environmental Education, the Leadership Team was able to build a compost bin for the school. After educating each class and faculty and staff, we are now composting all compostable food waste produced by the school. The processed compost is then used to fertilize our school gardens.
Redwood makes efforts to learn about and to conserve energy. For the last four years, Redwood has co-hosted the city wide used cooking oil recycling project, the Gobble Grease toss. We partner with Lexington Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG), the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) and Kelley Green Biofuel to collect and recycle used cooking oil the day after Thanksgiving each year. Over the last four years, students have collected more than 1,200 gallons of used cooking oil from the community and prevented it from being thrown in landfills. Instead, some is used for biofuel research and the remainder is converted into biofuels that are used in Kentucky farm equipment. After collecting and analyzing data on idling habits in morning and afternoon carpool lines (finding that two thirds of cars were idling for 15 minutes or more, even on days with mild weather), students purchased a bike rack and “idle-free zone” signs with raised funds. Students are encouraged to ride their bikes to school and people in carpool line are encouraged to be “idle-free” while waiting for their children. For their efforts in energy education and conservation, the Leadership Team was presented with an award of elementary school of the year in 2018. We make additional energy conservation efforts by installing LED lights, programmable thermostats and high efficiency toilets. Leadership Team members educate students and teachers about energy saving strategies and perform weekly energy surveys to determine the school’s success in conserving energy.
Sustainable agriculture is another area of focus for our school. We have built a raised bed garden, using free end cuts from a local lumber yard to reduce waste. Each class starts seeds in the classroom and tend to the seedlings until they are ready to be transplanted in the outdoor garden, and all classes tend to the outdoor garden and harvest produce. Some of the produce is enjoyed by our students as nutritious supplements to their snacks and lunches and some produce will be donated to Glean Ky and local food pantries. We also have a recirculating aquaponics system with Koi and edible plants that the students tend and utilize for food production, data collection and STEM education. Our science teacher is also helping students colonize mushrooms, which allows them to learn about another type of growing and harvest. Our preschool students tap maple trees in their playground area and process the sap to make maple syrup. The students host a plant sale in the spring each year, selling some of the starter plants that they have grown in the classroom to raise money for their garden, other environmental projects and to help our families grow their own food. Last year, we extended our sustainable agriculture program by partnering with a local farm, Elmwood Stock Farm, to promote locally produced foods and community supported agriculture. Our families who sign up for a farm share are able to pick up their weekly farm food at school, which encourages more people to support local farms through CSA’s and puts our families in touch with easily accessible farm fresh and nutritious food. We have also added edible berry shrubs throughout the property so these fresh foods can be readily accessible to students. Redwood participates in the University of Kentucky Extension egg incubation project. Our classrooms received incubators and eggs to care for and hatch. The hatched chickens have found a home at Redwood in two coops on campus, one close to the preschool playgrounds and one close to the elementary and middle school playgrounds, and laying eggs consistently. Each week, the classes take on the responsibility of chicken care, rotating through a schedule that includes preschool classes, elementary classes, middle school classes and our students who attend the after care program. Students provide food and water and collect eggs. Some classes have used their eggs to make baked goods, others have donated the eggs they collect. Keeping chickens at school allows all of our students and families to connect with farm animals, develop compassion, learn about locally produced foods, and reduce the carbon footprint of food transportation.
Redwood students support pollinators through an effort to increase native plants on campus. After researching issues that pollinators currently face, our Leadership Team planned and planted a pollinator habitat. They determined the best combination of plants to use in their native garden, created the design and then enlisted the help of other students in planting the garden and painting stones to create a border. The garden is used to support pollinators and provide an observation area for students.
Water conservation is another area of great focus for Redwood. With the help of a water grant, awarded by Kentucky Green and Healthy Schools, Redwood built a rain garden. Students participate in a variety of water conservation activities. In addition to the water conservation activities that are included in the Redwood science curriculum, students receive visits from community experts, including educators at Bluegrass Greensource who brought an enviroscape watershed model for the students to explore and learn and a Water Quality Specialist from the University of Kentucky (UK). Redwood teachers also participated in a professional development where they were trained in the Project WET and Getting Little Feet Wet curricula so they could successfully incorporate water education and conservation in their classrooms. The Leadership Team surveyed school grounds during times of rain, measuring and calculating percentages of pervious and impervious surfaces, calculating runoff volume and determining the ideal size rain garden to handle the volume of watershed runoff at Redwood. On Earth Day, students were able to break ground on the rain garden and spent the next several weeks building it with the help of the UK Water Quality Specialist and members of Copperhead Environmental Consulting, who donated their time and the use of digging machinery to the effort. Seeds for the native rain garden plants were started in classrooms and planted in the rain garden. For their efforts, students were awarded an environmental commission award from the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government.
In addition to student environmental efforts, teachers are offered professional development and outreach opportunities that help them integrate environmental education curriculum into their classrooms. Six Redwood teachers have become certified Project Learning Tree educators, nine Redwood teachers have become certified Project WET educators and five Redwood teachers attended an energy education workshop. 65% of all Redwood teachers are certified in a formal EE curriculum. In July 2019, Redwood hosted its first annual learning conference in environmental education. We welcomed 80 teachers to learn about EE and hosted many professionals in environmental education as presenters.
The space directly outside of each classroom has been turned into outdoor classrooms, so each class has easy access to outdoor learning and can utilize this connected outdoor space as an extension of their classrooms. Teachers use this space to offer an outdoor component to regular lessons (literacy, engineering, math, etc), have a space for hands-on activities, and an outdoor space for enjoying snacks and lunches and generally connecting with nature. Teachers also utilize other outdoor space on campus to enhance lessons. One example of this is when, during a multiplication unit, teachers offered a rotation outside where students played multiplication hopscotch to reinforce multiplication facts. All students, preschoolers through fifth graders, are also provided 90 minutes of unstructured outdoor time for social and emotional growth, free play and nature explorations. Middle School students have 75 minutes of unstructured outdoor time. We connect our students and families with community environmental education, including neighborhood trash cleanups, community tree plantings in partnership with Lexington Tree Week, stream studies and exploration of natural areas whenever possible.
As another piece to the environmental education program, the Redwood Leadership Team hosts an annual Earth Day Extravaganza, a fair that families and students are invited to attend. They rotate through STEM and environmental learning centers. In the upcoming year we look forward to partnering with Lexington Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) parks and the University of Kentucky for a full day of environmental education and an Earth Day service project. At Redwood, environmental education and sustainability are a primary focus and we make daily efforts to increase both. We regularly observe, evaluate and update our practices to best address current environmental needs.
This year, we are excited to participate in a number of ongoing and new sustainability projects.