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‘It starts small:’ Sharon Elementary earns 2019 Green Ribbon School Award for sustainability
Sharon Elementary School
Sharon Elementary School earned the 2019 Green Ribbon School for their environmental impact. - photo for the Forsyth County News

Out of the small dream for a more effective recycling program and an outdoor learning center for students in south Forsyth, green things have grown and flourished at Sharon Elementary School. 

This year, Sharon Elementary was one of 35 schools in the nation to be recognized as a Green Ribbon School by the United States Department of Education, which is awarded to schools and school systems that reduce their environmental impact, improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff, and provide effective environmental and sustainability education.

While walking through the school’s Discover, Inspire, Grow, Succeed (D.I.G.S.) outdoor learning space on Wednesday, Aug. 28, Principal Amy Bartlett says that it’s amazing to consider how much the school’s green initiatives have grown in such a short amount of time.

“It’s just unbelievable to see it,” Bartlett said. “It’s just the culmination and affirmation of all the hard work that we have done.”

According to Bartlett and the four other staff members who lead the school’s green initiatives, over the last six years, the school’s sustainability practices slowly blossomed from the momentum that D.I.G.S and the school’s recycling ambassadors program started, eventually reaching every aspect of the school day.

From walk-to-school days in the morning and idle-free zones in the afternoon car line, to the green custodial products and student-led programs on the environment, sustainability is now just part of what makes Sharon Elementary what it is, Bartlett said. 

“It starts small,” she said. “Everything starts small.”

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Sharon Elementary
Sharon Elementary’s Discover, Inspire, Grow, Succeed (D.I.G.S.) outdoor learning space.

And from what the team of school leaders report, this school-wide effort at sustainability and environmental health isn’t the typical yearly push that starts on Earth Day and ends the next week or month as other initiatives come and go; students, staff and the surrounding community of Sharon Elementary are genuinely invested in sustainability, taking the lessons into their own homes, making time in their busy lives, and participating wherever they can.

“It really is a strength and numbers effort.” Bartlett added. “I think it just takes everybody buying into the mindset … then it becomes part of the culture.”

At the school, older students visit classrooms of younger students to talk about the environment, while others come to school early to work on a variety of projects.

“The kids are on board 100%,” said Jessica Wutz, an instructional coach at Sharon. “Their love for the Earth and animals is driving them.”

One of the events they have had the most success and support with is a quarterly cleanup on a stretch of James Burgess Road between Old Atlanta Road and Turnberry Avenue in south Forsyth that the school adopted and began maintaining years ago.

The team says that their cleanup crew has grown from a handful of students, teachers and parents, to nearly 50 people. They are running out of trash and road to clean up. 

“Those parents are all on board,” fifth-grade teacher Lauren Sarnacki said. “Some of them are taking off work early; they’re making arrangements for their child care. So they’re totally invested.”

Recently, the school even had parent volunteers come forward to assist them with their next big venture – fully-compostable lunch trays for the school cafeteria. 

“This parent heard our presentation. And literally within two days was like, ‘I know how to do this,’” Wutz said.

In September, Bartlett and the other leaders of the initiative will travel to Washington, D.C., to accept their award, but the real celebration will come after, they say.

“This is really our student’s award,” Bartlett said. “So, we turned it back to the hands of our green team to say, ‘How do we celebrate this among our school community?’ And of course, they’re so creative and thoughtful, so they came up with the idea of celebrating on ‘Hallow-green.’ So, on [Oct.] 31st we will be having a green celebration.”

And with the Green Ribbon School distinction under their belt, Bartlett said that they want to not only continue with their sustainability practices — business as usual — but together they hope to inspire and spread what they have learned to other schools in the Forsyth County school system. 

Starting with schools in their cluster, Sharon will partner with and inspire as many students and educators as they can to start them on the path of sustainability.

“Everything starts small, and we can help other people get started, watch them flourish and grow into amazing things,” she said. 

Sharon Elementary
Students and parents participate in a quarterly cleanup on a stretch of James Burgess Road between Old Atlanta Road and Turnberry Avenue in south Forsyth that the school adopted and began maintaining years ago.