U. S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools Criteria Purpose

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2015-2016 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools Criteria


The aim of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) is to inspire schools, districts and Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) to strive for 21st century excellence, by highlighting promising practices and resources that all can employ. To that end, the award recognizes schools, districts, and IHEs that:

  1. Reduce environmental impact and costs;

  2. Improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and

  3. Provide environmental education, which teaches many disciplines, and is especially good at effectively incorporating STEM, civic skills, and green career pathways.

Combined progress in ALL three of these areas, collectively known as Pillars, serves as the basis for recognition. Each Pillar is divided into Elements, which provide further guidance on each of the three main areas. ED-GRS aligns with the Department’s cross-cutting goals for education, including improving student, staff, and facility performance and increasing efficiency at the federal, state, and local levels. At the postsecondary level, these Pillars help to support the goals of reduced college costs, increased completion rates, higher rates of employment, and robust civic skills among graduates. The recognition award is part of a U.S. Department of Education (ED) effort to identify and communicate practices that result in improved student engagement, academic achievement, graduation rates, and workforce preparedness; and reinforces federal efforts to increase energy independence and economic security.

Encouraging resource efficient schools, districts, and IHEs allows administrators to dedicate more resources to instruction rather than operational costs. Healthy schools and wellness practices ensure that all students learn in an environment conducive to achieving their full potential, free of the health disparities that can aggravate achievement gaps. Sustainability education helps all students engage in hands-on learning, hone critical thinking and collaboration skills, learn many disciplines, and develop a solid foundation in STEM subjects. It motivates postsecondary students in many disciplines, and especially those underserved in STEM subjects, to persist and graduate with sought after degrees and robust civic skills.


ED-GRS began in the 2011-2012 school year, recognizing 78 Pre-K-12 schools at the inaugural ED-GRS ceremony in June 2012. In the 2012-2013 school year, ED recognized 68 Pre-K-12 schools and 14 high-performing districts under the pilot District Sustainability Award. In the 2013-2014 school year, ED recognized 48 Pre-K-12 schools and 9 districts. In the 2014-2015 school year, in addition to 58 schools and 14 districts, ED honored 9 IHEs nationwide.


The Secretary of Education invites Chief State School Officers (CSSOs) and State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEOs) from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, as well as the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) (“Nominating Authorities”) to nominate schools, districts, and IHEs that they have determined as meeting the criteria. For all award categories, authorities are strongly encouraged to work with other state agencies, non-profit partners, and associations to ensure appropriate expertise and outreach to eligible candidates. For postsecondary nominees, State Selection Committees should include input from the governor’s office, postsecondary offices, and/or associations of higher education, as appropriate.

The authorities must confirm that the nominees meet the minimum requirements established by ED under the Program Requirements section of this document. They must also describe any other criteria used to select the schools, districts, and IHEs as nominees. The authorities may wish to use, develop, or refine existing green, healthy, and sustainability recognition programs, certifications or ratings, and/or run a competition within their jurisdictions in order to identify nominees to the Department, but they are not required to do so.

ED-Green Ribbon Schools and District Sustainability Awardees. Each authority is permitted as many as five Pre-K-12 school or district nominations. If a state or comparable authority wishes to nominate more than two schools or districts, at least one must serve at least 40 percent of students from a disadvantaged background.1 For a private school to be nominated, at least one public school or district must be nominated. No more than one of the five nominees in this Pre-K-12 category may be a private school. A school or district may be selected as an honoree only once. Authorities are encouraged to consider a school or district’s academic achievement, success in closing achievement gaps, and diversity when selecting school nominees. Free standing early learning institutions are eligible in this category.

Postsecondary Sustainability Award. In addition to a total of five school and district nominees, each state may nominate one IHE2 for progress in all three Pillars. For this award, State Selection Committees are encouraged to document where possible how the nominees’ sustainability work has reduced college costs, increased completion rates, led to higher rates of employment, and ensured robust civic skills among graduates, and to make an appropriate effort to consider diverse types of institutions. An IHE may be selected as an honoree only once. While ED is not bound to selecting particular numbers of honorees, the final national cohort will be reflective of the full range of types of IHEs, including two- and four-year institutions and public and private institutions.

Program Requirements

State education authorities, including both CSSOs and SHEEOs, working with governor’s offices, higher education officials, and other partners, as appropriate in each state, must submit documentation of school, district, and postsecondary nominees’ progress under the Pillars and Elements, listed below. They are encouraged to use a variety of widely accepted sustainability standards, certifications, ratings, and programs. Nominating authorities, district officials, and principals (where applicable) must certify compliance with all applicable civil rights, student aid, health, environment, and safety statutory and regulatory requirements.

Nominating Authorities are encouraged to engage state health, environmental, and safety authorities; non-profit experts in these areas; and federal agency field offices with appropriate technical expertise. In addition to providing valuable subject matter expertise, these partners can make the task of recruiting applicants and selecting nominees to the Department less cumbersome. For postsecondary nominees, state selection committees may include input from governor’s offices, higher education offices, and/or associations of higher education, as appropriate in each state.

Once schools, districts, and IHEs are selected by Nominating Authorities and presented, ED will conduct final review to ensure that schools, districts, and IHEs: 1) are making progress in all three Pillars and every Element; 2) comply with all applicable federal civil rights, student aid and federal, state, local, and tribal health, safety, and environmental statutory and regulatory requirements; 3) meet high college- and career-ready academic standards; and 4) in the case of IHEs, document reduced college costs, increased completion rates, higher rates of employment, and robust civic skills among graduates, wherever possible.

This federal review will determine the national honorees, which will be announced annually on Earth Day. Authorities must, at a minimum, include documentation of progress in all Pillars and Elements, as well as the civil rights, student aid, health, safety, and environmental statutory and regulatory compliance of nominated schools, districts, and IHEs, as applicable in each case.

Review Criteria Used by the Authorities to Select Nominees:

Each authority is invited to nominate up to five schools or school districts and a single IHE that it assesses to be the highest performing in their jurisdiction, based on the authorities’ evaluation of applicants’ progress in all Pillars and every Element. Authorities should take into account demographic and geographic diversity and success in closing achievement gaps in their selections, as ED will do the same in the federal review, aiming for a diverse cohort, representative of the full spectrum of schools, school districts and IHEs across the nation.

ED-Green Ribbon Schools Pillars and Elements

I. Reduced Environmental Impact and Costs

  • Reduced or eliminated greenhouse gas emissions, using an energy audit or emissions inventory and reduction plan, cost-effective energy efficiency improvements, conservation measures, and/or on-site renewable energy and/or purchase of green power;

  • Improved water quality, efficiency, and conservation;

  • Reduced solid and hazardous waste production through increased recycling and composting, reduced consumption, and improved management, reduction, or elimination of hazardous waste; and

  • Expanded use of alternative transportation, through active promotion of locally-available, energy-efficient options and implementation of alternative transportation supportive projects and policies.

II. Improved Health and Wellness

  • High standards of coordinated school health3, including health, nutrition, and outdoor physical education; health, counseling, and psychological services for both students and staff; family community involvement; and an integrated school environmental health program that considers occupant health and safety in all design, construction, renovation, operations, and maintenance of facilities and grounds.

III. Effective Environmental and Sustainability Education

  • Interdisciplinary learning about the key relationships between dynamic environmental, energy, and human systems;

  • Use of the environment and sustainability to develop STEM content knowledge and thinking skills to prepare graduates for the 21st century technology-driven economy; and

  • Development of civic engagement knowledge and skills and students’ application of such knowledge and skills to address sustainability issues in their community.

Technical Assistance

ED-GRS provides technical assistance to schools, districts, IHEs, associations, and states, including: 1) a portal of resources and webinars for green schools; 2) sample applications for evaluation of nominees; and 3) ongoing communications among State Selection Committees, non-profits, and federal agencies to facilitate the dissemination of best practices.

Notification, Recognition Ceremony, and Benefits

Honored schools, school districts, and IHEs are announced each year on Earth Day and are recognized at an annual ceremony. The recognition award conveys no ED funding to states, districts, schools, or IHEs.

Statutory Authorities

ED is responsible for administering U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools. ED-GRS is authorized by Section 5411(b)(5) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (20 U.S.C. § 7243(b)(5)) and Department of Education Organization Act, 20 U.S.C. 3402 (2) and (3).

1 A student from a “disadvantaged background” is defined for this program by the CSSO of each state. The definition must include students who are eligible for free and reduced-price school meals and may include students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient, migrant, or receiving services under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Nominating Authorities must indicate the definition used and the percent disadvantaged for each school nominated.

2 An IHE is defined in Section 101(a) of the Higher Education Act as public and private non-profit institutions.

3 See Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 8 Components of Coordinated School Health. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/cshp/components.htm

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