Since 1953, the number of students in Georgia schools has doubled (from 863,761 to 1,634,251 in 2011) while the number of school buildings has decreased from 3,113 to 2,246 in 2011.  The school system has moved to larger schools with more students in each of the schools. This trend means we need to be even more careful with how the school grounds are managed.
Although children spend most of their school day inside the building, they also spend time outdoors. During recess, physical education class, physical activity outside of class time and getting to and from school are all times when students are susceptible to the outdoor environment. Examples of contaminants that can be found in outdoor school environments include air pollution from motor vehicles, pesticides and industrial pollutants. EPA permits over 200 different pesticides to be used for lawn care, and these are often mixed together and sold as chemical combinations. They are intentionally toxic substances. Some of these pollutants also contribute to exposures within the indoor environment in schools.
According to the EPA, children are more vulnerable to environmental exposures because their responses to toxic substances, both in severity and in the nature of the adverse effect, which can differ markedly from those of adults. Children breathe more air, drink more water and eat more food per kilogram of body weight than adults. Children’s behaviors (especially hand to mouth contact) make them more susceptible to environmental hazards, especially hazards in soil and dust. Children with chronic illnesses such as asthma may experience increased vulnerability to environmental toxicants. Children are more likely to be engaged in increased physical activity causing heaving breathing, which leads to a direct deposition in the lungs of any environmental contaminants present in the air.
According to the EPA, research has confirmed that the quality of a school facility has an impact on students’ experiences and ultimately on their educational achievement. Research on school building conditions and student outcomes finds a consistent relationship between poor facilities and poor performance: higher student achievement is associated with school facilities that are clean, in good repair and designed to support high academic standards, independent of student socioeconomic status.
The good news is that there are options and programs that can work even in existing schools that improve the conditions outdoors. A school garden program offers students place-based experiences that deeply impact their understanding of food, health, nature and community. Successful garden programs can improve test scores, fight childhood obesity, promote physical activity, expose kids to healthy foods, change eating habits and provide positive connections to nature. Garden programs can be developed using installed built gardens, indoor or outdoor container growing or through relationships with a nearby community garden or farm.
Restoring a portion of the school grounds to a native habitat or natural area can be easier to maintain and reduce landscaping costs and maintenance. Planting trees can lower energy costs significantly, as well as add beauty and balance to the grounds. The community can easily be inspired to help the school beautify their school grounds by helping build things like hiking trails, butterfly gardens, wildlife habitats, rain gardens, and ponds. These areas can also assist in diverting stormwater runoff.
Light pollution reduction through use of motion detectors has made it easier for law enforcement to determine if someone is on the property after hours. Creating zones for lights in the parking lot can reduce the energy and expenses of a school without creating additional hazards.
An alternative transportation plan can be developed with partners such as the Clean Air Campaign that will help the school develop a Ride The Bus! For Clean Air program to encourage school bus ridership or create a Pool to School program to encourage carpooling.
A school that has native landscaping and a school garden, that offers alternative transportation, follows a stormwater management plan and embraces light pollution reduction makes a better neighbor.
Use the Sample School Grounds Audit from EcoSchools to help you complete a School Grounds Audit. You will use the data you collect to create your School Grounds Action Plan.
Schoolyard Habitats ® National Wildlife Federation gives guidance on establishing a certified habitat. There is no minimum amount of land needed for Schoolyard Habitats® projects. The site must offer food, water, shelter, and a place for raising young to beneficial insects or animals.
School Gardens, Cooperative Extension publishes a guide, curriculum and other school garden resources: Planning an Edible Garden for Community and School Gardens. Classes for teachers are also availbale through Cooperative Extension. A garden blog is also available.
Captain Planet Foundation Learning Gardens Program provides schools with strategies for building effective and long-lasting garden-based learning programs. Teachers at pilot schools are provided with hands-on training, curriculum aligned to national standards, lesson kits filled with supplies, a schoolyard garden, fully-equipped garden cooking cart, and summer garden management intern.
Farm to School with Georgia Organics is a nationwide movement that connects schools and local farms to serve healthy meals in school cafeterias, improve student nutrition and farm or gardening educational opportunities. Currently, there are farm to school programs in all 50 states. Learn about the Golden Radish Award winners too.
Safe Routes to School has information on the Georgia program and how to start a walking and biking program in schools.
Trees Atlanta offers an Urban Tree Trackers curriculum that consists of two main programs: Artscapes and Birds, Butterflies, and Bee Pollinator Gardens.
Pollinator Habitat Certification recognizes sites that provide butterflies and other pollinators with food, water, shelter and places to raise their young. This is a program of the Monarchs Across Georgia (MAG) which is a committee of the Environmental Education Alliance. MAG works together with teachers, students, families, communities, businesses and others to study Monarch butterflies and restore butterfly habitat across the state. Its mission is to inspire future caretakers of the natural environment by educating about monarch butterflies and other pollinators.
Decatur Farm to School Program gives details about the entire school district in Georgia that is involved in the Farm to School Program.
Keep Georgia Beautiful website includes resources on litter prevention, waste reduction and recycling, community greening, water, and education. Click here to find your local affiliate.
Action for Healthy Kids is a national resource that also has state branches and serves as a multi-agency collaborative that works to exchange information, share resources, and enhance represented organization's capacity to achieve increased school wellness programs and services for Georgia students.
Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful has made it a mission that every school in Athens will have a vegetable garden accessible to enhance instruction that engages students, staff, families and the community. In addition, the Schoolyard Litter Gitters are making an impact on the school grounds.
Winning Water: The Children’s Water Festival Trailer is a program of Keep Georgia Beautiful. The purpose of the children’s water festival trailer is to educate students (around the age of fourth grade) about ground, drinking, surface water (watersheds) and water quality in a fun hands-on atmosphere. KGBF is happy to loan out the water festival trailer and activity supplies.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in Schools is the EPA recommended method to be used by schools to reduce pesticide risk and exposure to children.
Beyond Pesticides gives information about the issues of using pesticides on school grounds and offers solutions.
Clean Air Campaign has K-12 Teacher Resource Guides with background information, resources, lesson plans and activities, all of which are designed to be completed in a one week unit or can be done individually. It also has over 50 lesson plans aligned with the Georgia Performance Standards, as well as the National Standards. On Air Blog is a program for individual teens to earn Air Creds by doing green things.
Georgia SHAPE is a network of partners, agencies and athletic team, including Governor Nathan Deal, the Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta Braves, the Georgia Department of Public Health, and the Georgia Department of Education, all committed to improving the health of young people by offering assistance and opportunity to achieve a greater level of overall fitness. Georgia SHAPE begins with a basic, benchmark measurement of fitness through a FITNESSGRAM.
School Siting Guidelines should be reviewed by new schools and existing schools that are looking to expand or change the grounds of the school.
School Gardens gives information from Georgia Organics on how to start an edible school garden.