It's perhaps ironic that a private school in Savannah known for its upper-crust, conservative and somewhat exclusive demeanor would also be the most environmentally progressive school in the area.
Or maybe even the country?
Savannah Country Day School is the first-ever U.S. winner of the "Green Flag" Eco-Schools award. The award will be presented in a ceremony this Thursday, April 28.
Before we talk about what the award is and what they had to do to get it, let's cut to the chase and talk about what's really important: The things Savannah Country Day students actually experience on campus that educate them about ecosystems and the environment.
"In kindergarten they have an herb garden they work in," explains lower school teacher Carrie Stubbs-Vetrovsky, who was instrumental in submitting the application.
"In first grade they have a fruit orchard. In second grade we do metamorphosis. We take monarch butterfly eggs from milkweed in the garden and bring them inside to study them."
And third graders experience an entire organic vegetable garden.
It doesn't stop there: "Everybody at all levels works on composting," says Stubbs-Vetrovsky. "It starts with staff with preconsumer waste in the cafeteria. We're moving to post-consumer waste very quickly. Students are separating lunch food into compostable and non-compostable materials."
Country Day already garnered national attention for its Silver LEED-certified lower school building, completed in 2008. But much more than that goes into winning the Green Flag.
The National Wildlife Federation is the U.S. sponsor for the award, which is administered by the Foundation for Environmental Education and recognizes winners in over 50 countries.
"The National Wildlife Federation has had an environmental education program for over 40 years, but we didn't have a program that directly addressed environmental education in K-12 schools," says Laura Hickey, senior director of Eco-Schools USA.
In 2008 the NWF applied successfully to become official U.S. host of the competition, which itself has been around since the mid-1990s.
The process involves schools registering as "Eco-Schools." "They have to undertake a seven-step framework that's the same in every country, with an eco-action team comprising students, faculty, administrators, parents and community members," says Hickey.
But it's primarily a student-driven process, which includes an environmental audit of the school based on areas like energy, water, transportation, and climate change.
The really cool thing about the award is that it doesn't just look at school grounds - it's about curriculum as well.
"It's not meant to be additive," says Hickey. "This shows there are ways you can take existing curriculum and add in environmental concepts that are important for students to know."
This includes the concept of "green hour," i.e., class time outdoors.
"Children need to be outside every week for instruction time, not just for recess," says Stubbs-Vetrovsky.
Country Day's excellence in this area is due to a couple of key factors, says Stubbs-Vetrovsky, who came to the school from the local public school system.
"Here we have more freedom to learn, rather than always feeling the need to worry about standardized tests."
Also, the administration is extremely supportive. "Our administration is unique in the fact that it gives our teachers a lot of freedom," says Stubbs-Vetrovsky. "They trust us as professionals to make decisions on our own that are best for the children."
The Eco-Schools Green Flag award will be presented to Savannah Country Day in a flag-raising ceremony at the school this Thursday at 2 p.m.