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Two OPS schools saluted for leading way on environmental efforts – Omaha World

Two Omaha public schools — Wilson Focus School, at 5141 F St., and Gomez Heritage Elementary School, 5101 S. 17th St. — have proved they’re keen on being green.

At Gomez Heritage, geothermal energy helps heat and cool the building; children learn and play in an outdoor classroom; mothers collect recyclables; fathers help clean and maintain the grounds; and staff members encourage children to try nutritious foods and avoid waste.

At Wilson, students learn to lead environmental endeavors, helping to keep the school grounds clean and manicured, trimming bushes, planting and picking up and sorting recyclable waste from blue bins around the school.

These and other efforts earned the two schools Green Ribbon awards from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, an honor reserved for just 58 schools and 14 districts across the country.

Sustaining a healthy environment is important to Omaha Public Schools, said Susan Colvin, who helps administer the school district’s Green Schools Initiative, a program that has saved the school district almost $6 million over six years, she said.

Schools throughout the district have bought into the initiative, coordinated by an Omaha consulting firm, Verdis Group. Four other schools and the entire district have earned Green Ribbon awards over the past four years. And OPS has become nationally recognized for its environmentalism, Colvin said.

The awards are based on three pillars: reducing environmental impact and costs, improving health and wellness and educating students in environmentalism and sustainability.

Some efforts are common to both Wilson and Gomez Heritage: Nutrition and exercise are emphasized; students learn to garden; native grasses are used in landscaping because they require less moisture; rain barrels help conserve water; and the relatively new buildings allow plenty of natural light and are designed for efficiency.

Other measures set the schools apart.

Wilson, home to 240 students in third through sixth grade, uses its focus on leadership, technology and communication to help create a healthy environment, Principal Bret Anderson said. Students take pride in their green efforts and help lead the school, he said. “They think about being advocates for the outside community and the environment.”

Students learn to pick up after themselves, help out others and clean up trash when they see it, Anderson said.

“A school can make an impact,” he said, by saving money and bettering students, school property and the surrounding neighborhood.

OPS schools monitor their energy efficiency, and Wilson students learn about progress in morning news announcements.

“The kids are aware,” the principal said, and they prompt others to conserve energy.

Enrichment classes boost physical activity for the children and include dance, yoga, outdoor sports, taekwondo, archery, and walking and biking clubs.

Each classroom has a 5-foot-by-8-foot raised garden bed, which students help build and maintain. From the gardening, they learn about erosion, water conservation, engineering and construction, and math, school officials said.

At Gomez Heritage, all 860 students in preschool through fourth grade use the school’s nationally accredited Jan Gilbert Memorial Outdoor Classroom and Timberwolf Park. The outdoor area includes a stage, building areas, bird feeders, gardens and a tricycle track.

School fathers collect cans each year, with the proceeds helping to improve the outdoor classroom, and work on gardens and clean-up projects. Mothers collect recyclables from classrooms every Friday morning.

Earth Day is a weeklong celebration at Gomez Heritage. The school also participates in a Woodhouse Auto Family backpack program, which each Friday provides 120 backpacks filled with healthy food for children in need, said Amy Hansen, a teacher and leader of the school’s Green Team.

A fresh fruits and vegetables program, offered two days a week, encourages children to sample nutritious produce they may have never tried before, Principal John Campin said. And the school cooperates with the Salvation Army Kroc Center to involve children in sports and athletic activities.

School staff members try to use natural light and refrain from turning on artificial lights during work days when students are out of school, said teacher JoAnne Kawecki, who also is a Green Team member. And school computers are timed to shut off automatically after school.

All the steps the school takes are worth it, Kawecki said. “We’re teaching stewardship for future generations.”

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