Schools Gone Green

Get inspired by these four Portland-area schools that are doing more than their part to save the planet.

“What makes me most excited about Oregon Green Schools is hearing from the students about their progress. I appreciate that we are preparing kids for the rest of their lives. Resource conservation is not just a choice. It’s something our kids are going to have to do.”

– Laurel Bates, board chair of the Oregon Green Schools Association.

Taking stock of light usage at Trillium Creek Primary School.

Taking stock of light usage at Trillium Creek Primary School.

Most Oregonians can rattle off the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle.

But can you name the three W’s?

It’s waste, watts and water, and reducing all three is the goal of the Oregon Green Schools Association, a nonprofit that has been working for almost 20 years to help schools across the state reduce their environmental footprint. From its roots with just a handful of Portland-area schools, it’s grown to about 250 schools around Oregon. Want to get your school on board? It helps to have student, staff and parent volunteers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

A cozy nest for reading, at Trillium Creek Primary School in West Linn.

A cozy nest for reading, at Trillium Creek Primary School in West Linn.

“Every single program is different and adapted to the needs of the school,” says Laurel Bates, board chair of the OGSA. There’s no cost for schools to participate, and Bates says schools often end up saving money while building a stronger, more united community.

Start by conducting a waste audit. Yes, that’s what you think it is: Digging through the garbage and taking inventory of what’s thrown away. Picture half-eaten sandwiches, stinky milk cartons, broken pencils, glue sticks and lots of plastic food packaging. It’s good, messy fun for kids, while volunteer parents and teachers learn a lot. Everyone can set shared goals around waste reduction, recycling and composting once they’ve gotten up close and personal with the trash.

“When I help with waste audits I encourage kids to look at their own home,” explains Bates, who adds that a secondary goal of the program is getting students to bring the green zeal home.

From compost to chickens

Working on “the bird garden” at Sunnyside K-8.

Working on “the bird garden” at Sunnyside K-8.

Schlepping compost isn’t usually anyone’s first choice for chores. But at West Hills Montessori, an Oregon Green School, you’ll find even the youngest students happily lugging around large compost buckets.

Sometimes the school’s food waste goes home with one of the teachers, to feed her chickens. They call it “West Hills treats.”

West Hills Montessori embarked on its OGS Green Level certification just last school year. The private school, with three campuses, focused its green efforts at the Vermont Hills site, where students range from 3 to 9 years old.

Driven by the efforts of Victoria Poth, a primary teaching assistant, West Hills hit the ground running, in hopes that students would learn “how to be ambassadors of our environment.”

Students at Southridge High School are proud of their water bottle refilling station.

Students at Southridge High School are proud of their water bottle refilling station.

“Children are fascinated by water,” said Poth, so they’ve emphasized the importance of saving enough clean water for plants and animals.

They launched a “water savers” campaign, posted signs and taught students how to wash their hands without wasting water. They installed low-cost faucet aerators, reducing their average water usage by 500 gallons a month.

The school also developed a “how to pack a waste-free lunch” flier, which was shared with parents. In addition, the school hosted a fundraiser for durable lunch containers. The results? A 60 percent reduction in lunch waste.

“The children were going home and telling their parents,” Poth said. “They were seeing how much was going to waste.”

School Director Anne Blickenstaff agreed: “the enthusiasm from the children has just been wonderful.”

A job for every grade

If you asked the folks at Disney to build a green school, it might look like Trillium Creek Primary School.

Working on a waste audit at West Hills Montessori School.

Working on a waste audit at West Hills Montessori School.

Trillium sits on a 15-acre site with big trees and paths for students to run on. It harvests rainwater that is filtered and used for toilet flushing. It’s got a wind turbine, solar power and rooftop gardens. The library is lit with natural light. Branchlike wooden pillars form a tree house that supports a cozy, pillow-filled nest for quiet reading, while an adjacent slide offers an express route down to the first floor. Nearby LED light poles provide real-time data on the school’s natural-resource usage.

Opened in the 2012-2013 year, Trillium is a neighborhood school in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District with 550 K-5 students. It’s won numerous awards for architectural design and sustainability. According to principal Charlotte Morris, being an Oregon Green School draws families to the neighborhood. Trillium became Green Level the first year, and is now working toward Merit.

At Trillium, each grade does its own waste sorting in grade-level “neighborhoods,” while kids on the leadership team perform skits at assemblies to show the rest of the school what they’ve been up to.Fourth graders are responsible for composting. They take the job seriously, weighing the amount of compost collected daily, preventing food waste andensuring the compost isn’t contaminated. Fifth graders are in charge of recycling, making sure the many recyclables collected are put in the right bins.

“We really try to build a culture to help the kids know where things go,” explains Dina Soriano, counselor and sustainability coordinator.

“One of the biggest things is to help kids to be thoughtful about this for life,” adds Morris, who credits the district for its support of sustainability efforts, and parent volunteers for keeping it all working.

“Recycling is great, but reducing your carbon footprint is (also) important.” says Soriano. “My challenge is student ownership of that.”

The ripple effects of going green

From a green perspective, Sunnyside Environmental School seems to have it all: solar panels, rainwater harvesting, worm bins, vast onsite gardens, and even an “Iron Chef” inspired cooking competition where students prepare meals from quirky combinations of food they’ve grown. And it wouldn’t be Portland without a few chickens: The coop is right by the school’s front door.

Except, they also have a really old school, built in 1926, that’s not exactly energy efficient. So the focus-option, neighborhood K-8 school focuses instead on green practices, which its principal credits with drawing more families to the surrounding neighborhood.

Chickens live in stately splendor at Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland.

Chickens live in stately splendor at Sunnyside Environmental School in Portland.

“Service learning is a huge part of our curriculum,” says principal Amy Kleiner. Each grade has its own garden plot. Fifth graders study colonial history, so their garden is edged with a white picket fence, and they grow medicinal herbs, such as wormwood and echinacea.

Sunnyside’s PTA funds part-time sustainability coordinators, who, Kleiner adds, help take the load off the school’s teachers.

Its sustainability efforts don’t go unnoticed. In 2012, Sunnyside was recognized as a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2014, singer Jason Mraz helped create a bird-friendly habitat and garden while touring Portland.

And now that Sunnyside has thoroughly integrated sustainability into its school culture, its principal is thinking beyond her school’s hallways. “What I would like is more environmental-education access for all kids,” Kleiner says.

Turning out the lights

Southridge High School makes it look easy to be green.

Its campus is an energy-efficient dream, built in 1999 and bustling with 1,700 students. It was the first school in the Beaverton School District to achieve Oregon Green School: Premier Level certification.

A gentle reminder to turn down the lights, at Southridge High School.

A gentle reminder to turn down the lights, at Southridge High School.

At Southridge, student government keeps it green with the support of Erik Reinholt, activities director and leadership teacher.

“We are very focused on being a green school,” says senior Nicholas Piwonka. “It’s definitely part of the culture now. It’s ingrained in what we do here. It’s on all levels. Everyone is working together to try and stay a green school.”

Meleah McGlinchy, also a senior and student government president, agrees: “If you throw a piece of paper in the garbage, people cringe!”

Students have decreased electricity usage by hosting weekly “Dim Days,” where teachers and students are asked to keep the lights low. These days, they usually find that lights are already half off. So the student government is brainstorming creative ways to revamp and increase the Dim Day challenge.

Got water? “There is always a kid with a water bottle filling up,” says Reinholt, who explains that the leadership team sold durable water bottles as a fundraiser several years ago, which funded the purchase of a water bottle filling station.

The student leaders also find a way to leverage the ubiquitous phones and embrace online culture for environmental good, and have pretty much become paperless as a result.

“We can take advantage of technology better, like taking a picture,” explains McGlinchy. “Paper isn’t the only choice.”


Oregon Green Schools application here.

Renee Limon

Renee Limon

Renee Limon is a freelance writer, best known locally for the locally grown blogs and She lives in Southwest Portland with her husband, two tweenage daughters and two rats.