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Center City elementary school greens its way to national honor

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Charlotte Pope

Photo: Courtesy of Paul Rider/A K Architecture Philadelphia’s Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School has been named a national Green Ribbon School, along with three other Pennsylvania schools, for its efforts in environmental stewardship.

“It feels great,” said principal Daniel Lazar, who has been at the Center City school since 2009.

“In a way, it’s a validation of everything that our community has worked towards over the past eight years.”

The U.S. Department of Education honored 64 schools that scored high on environmental impact, cost savings, curriculum development, and community involvement. Fourteen school districts were also recognized for their environmental efforts.

Chester County’s Westtown School and Nazareth Area Middle School, and Broughal Middle School in Northhampton County also received awards.

In 2005, the school launched the Greening Greenfield Committee, partnering with the Community Design Collaborative, to start the process of greening the schoolyard. Built in 1968, Greenfield did not possess the green infrastructure that more modern school buildings now have.

The school slowly began to transform into a self-sustaining space in 2009. Over 20 new trees and an herb garden were installed on school grounds. Stormwater-permeable surfaces collect 97 percent of rainwater that falls onto the schoolyard, reducing runoff and combined sewer overflows.

Lisa Armstrong, the co-chair of the Greening Greenfield Committee for the last seven years, has had four children attend Greenfield, with the first entering in 1995. An architect with a site-planning background, Armstrong spearheaded the movement to make an environmental impact on the school and the community.

“I have seen a transformation in the attitude of our school in terms of enjoying the outdoors and trying to be environmental stewards,” said Armstrong. “I think the Green Ribbon Award is especially rewarding for us because we earned all the points we could possibly earn from curriculum enrichment and community involvement and then conserving resources, all things that are behavior- and education-based initiatives, and not dependent on capital dollars.”

In 2010, Greenfield became the first public school in Philadelphia to install rooftop solar panels. A band called the Disco Biscuits donated the 5.3-kilowatt solar panel, selecting Greenfield from a pool of 22 schools that applied for a grant.

Greenfield has built a diversity of community collaborations, including partnerships with the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center to create curriculum, the Philadelphia Orchard project to plant an urban orchard garden on-site, and the Delaware Valley Green Building Council to begin an energy-education pilot program where 5th graders create their own energy-conservation project plans for the schools.

“The reception of students has been great,” said principal Lazar. “We have an edible herb and fruit garden, and we see older kids teaching younger kids what is out there. Students react in a different way when they are engaged in curriculum that has a real tangible experience for them.”

The award is part of a larger U.S. Department of Education effort to identify practices that improve student engagement, higher academic achievement, graduation rates, and workforce preparedness.

“It goes to show that with a lot of effort and advocacy on the part of the parents, students, and teachers that you can really have a significant impact not only in school, but in your local community,” Armstrong said.

Lazar hopes the Greenfield environmental initiative’s success will continue to have an influence on the school’s curriculum.

“It’s important for kids to have an understanding of what impact they have on their environment,” Lazar said.

“One day these students will be the ones in charge of making decisions.”

Charlotte Pope is an intern at the Notebook.

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