SOLANA BEACH — St. James Academy was recently named a California Green Ribbon bronze-level recipient, the first Catholic school in Southern California and the third in the state to be recognized as such.
It is the first of five steps to earning the highest recognition as a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, a program created to inspire educational institutions and districts “to strive for 21st century excellence by highlighting promising practices and resources that all can employ,” according to the federal website.
The award is the result of an approximately yearlong effort by Anne Marie Oldham, St. James’ music and performing arts teacher and “self-appointed sustainability director.”
Oldham said she was inspired to take action at the private school by Pope Francis’ letter to all bishops on the environment and his observations on how climate change negatively impacts the poor, underserved and youth.
“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” the encyclical asks.
“I’ve been an avid environmentalist all my life,” Oldham said. “And when the pope began speaking about the environment and climate change I felt that, working at a Catholic school, I should be doing something.”
But not everyone was as enthusiastic as Oldham, so she decided to pursue the award as an incentive for change.
The point-based program has three pillars. Schools must reduce environmental impacts and costs at their facilities, integrate environmental education into the curriculum and improve the health and wellness of students and staff.
Achieving bronze-level status requires 55 points. Some were easy to earn, such as documenting that the school has no lead in its water. St. James also got credit because the San Diego Diocese has a contract to install solar panels on its facilities beginning this summer.
Prohibiting the use of plastic water bottles was a bit more challenging, but she got it done. Switching to LED lights schoolwide also required a little extra effort but the payoff was worth it, Oldham said.
“Parent volunteers took all the old bulbs out and replaced them and we saw a 40 percent decrease in our energy use immediately,” she said. “And with rebates, we actually made money on that one.”
The school no longer allows sugary treats for birthday celebrations but sweets haven’t been eliminated entirely.
“For example, we do let them have cotton candy at the Halloween carnival,” Oldham said.
With help from the nonprofit Feed the Future, she was able to promote healthy eating by planting an organic garden. That came with some personal challenges.
“I had to find organic ways to keep ants from eating the oranges,” Oldham said. A Google search taught her to put double-sided tape on the trunks to prevent the insects from climbing.
Additionally, she discovered ladybugs are the secret to keeping aphids at bay.
“I’m not an expert on any of this,” she said. “I’m learning one thing at a time.”
St. James’ approximately 220 students log miles during “track Tuesdays” and are given fitness breaks during the day.
Incorporating environmental education into the curriculum was easier than expected, Oldham said, because California textbooks already include that type of information, school field trips include the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and a mad science demonstration is featured annually.
“But sometimes art can make the point in a much better way,” she said.
Oldham added modern choreography and popular songs to turn the Dr. Seuss book “The Lorax,” which chronicles the plight of the environment, into a musical message. The play was performed by students in all grade levels May 26 and featured costumes made from recycled materials.
Plastic bags became a swan and snack wrappers were turned into “hummingfish.”
She saw the play as a way to get people to embrace her efforts, especially since not everyone is 100 percent onboard.
“The reaction has been everything from enthusiastic to apathetic to people rolling their eyes,” she said. “People see me and say, ‘Oh no, here comes Anne Marie,’ and they try to hide their plastic utensils.”
Her plans to reach higher Green Ribbon status include increasing carpooling. But she knows she must take things one step at a time.
“You could go crazy, there’s just so many things to do,” she said. “The goal is really to create the healthiest environment we can and raise our students to care about animals and other human beings.
“It’s not just about polar bears,” she added. “It’s about us. It’s not just a loss of beauty. It’s harming us.”