Jacksonville's GREEN Secret

Duval County Public Schools take the lead in conservation and sustainability


In beautiful, coastal Jacksonville, “sea level rise” doesn’t appear to be in our city leaders’ vocabulary—much less “climate change,” “conservation” or “going green.” So it might be surprising to learn that when it comes to conserving energy and other resources, Duval County Public Schools leads the nation. Last week, two representatives from DCPS travelled to Washington, D.C. to be recognized, along with only eight other school districts in the countryir, with the prestigious Green Ribbon School District Award.

It’s not the first award that Susan Carew, DCPS’ director of facility engineering and energy, and Nerissa Hawkins, supervisor of contract management, have collected on behalf of the district. But it’s the most important.

“To get this from the Department of Education is a real honor,” Carew said. “We get awards from U.S. Green Buildings, Keep Jacksonville Beautiful, the state of Florida … this is our first national recognition,” she added, then corrected herself. “Except for last month, when we were recognized by Project Green Schools with the Green Difference Awards.”

Former Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was recognized by the Massachusetts-based program as an “Outstanding Green Superintendent,” while the county’s school district won a Green Difference award for Sustainability for its “Green Champions” program, which encourages school-based initiatives and friendly competition among schools. Former district Chief of Schools Iranetta Wright travelled to Boston to collect those awards, as well as one that recognized Alden Road Exceptional Student Center for its “Outstanding Green Education.” The U.S. DOE’s coveted Green Ribbon School District award, however, validates 12 years of intense attention to reducing schools’ environmental footprint, improving health and wellness among staff and students, and infusing sustainability and environmental education into the curriculum, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

While hundreds of people throughout DCPS contributed to the efforts that led to these awards, they’ve done so quietly, with little local press recognition.

“We are the best-kept secret in Jacksonville,” Carew said.

Trained as an electrical engineer, Carew worked for 20 years in the energy-efficiency industry prior to accepting her DCPS position. She is certified as a Leader in Environmental Efficiency and Design (LEED.)

“My job is to reduce energy and water costs and consumption,” Carew said. For example, the facilities department began installing high-efficiency lighting, high-efficiency air-conditioning systems and occupancy sensors that automatically turn off lights when no one is in the room.

Carew reports total savings since 2005, including electric, water, logistical and other items, of $100 million.

Carew credits her ally in contract services, Hawkins, for putting recycling bins in nearly all of the county’s 165 schools, and for streamlining trash and recycling bin pickups for maximum efficiency. Hawkins’ division also uses local vendors wherever possible to reduce the district’s carbon footprint, encourages electronic communication over paper and double-sided document printing and copying to save paper.

“She has saved quite a bit of money doing that,” Carew said, “by right-sizing bins and pickup frequency. We’ve come up with benchmarks and targets. It’s been a good program.”

While a chunk of overall savings occurred early on, with energy costs continuing to rise, Carew says that the district’s conservation efforts still save $6 million a year.

“That’s six million every year that the academic people can spend on new teachers, computers or programs or things for the classroom,” she said.

District 7 School Board member Lori Hershey couldn’t agree more.

“As we look at budget cuts and try to adjust, it’s exciting that our district is being proactive on saving energy,” Hershey said.

“We started doing a lot of projects [in 2005] … but we’d get a lot of complaints from the schools,” Carew said.

“They weren’t really on board, but we were saving tons of money.” Carew and Hawkins knew that they needed to get people at the school level—teachers, students and staff—to buy into their sustainability efforts in order to maximize conservation and savings. To make it happen, Carew founded the Green Champions program.

The DCPS website ( describes Green Champions as teachers who volunteer for extra activities with students to incorporate green concepts. The teachers recruit students and other volunteers to create school-based “green teams.”

“They learn everything, from what’s recyclable and what’s not, to features of their schools that save water and power. [Twenty-five] schools have solar panels. They learn about solar energy,” Carew said.

The facilities department has come to depend on the green teams, in turn, to tweak and maintain sustainability. “They bring opportunities to us,” Carew said.

When a school’s green team notices a light that never turns off, for example, they can call the facilities department and ask that an occupancy sensor be installed. If teachers need more light, they’ll adjust the sensor.

Green teams can also call about issues like leaky faucets or to report a faulty rain gauge in the irrigation system.

“We judge science fairs, set up booths at Science Night, judge Earth Day poster contests … ,” Carew said, listing the ways in which her office enhances STEM education related to sustainability. Her office also pairs green teams with local business partners.

“We provide resources and they [green teams] provide leads about how we can save more energy. It’s a really great relationship.”

Students may also learn about the environment, health and conservation through school-based gardening projects. The children are urged to think of ways to grow produce without adding to the school's water bills.

“When they want to build a school garden,” Carew says, “we ask them how they’re going to water [it]. The schools can get free rain barrels to water their gardens and landscaping.”

The barrels are fashioned out of environmentally safe plastic containers that once contained floor wax. When custodians empty the wax barrels, they remit them for cleaning and donation at the Teacher Supply Depot. Additionally, Alden Road Exceptional Student Center has taught students how to make the rain barrels.

Hershey applauds green team leaders’ dedication to teaching practical, hands-on lessons in environmental sustainability.

“It’s really about learning a lifestyle,” Hershey says. “It’s one thing to introduce concepts in the classroom and another to introduce the practical applications.

“It’s exciting to see our district helping lead the way to educate students in a hands-on manner.”

An elementary school in Hershey’s district, Twin Lakes Academy Elementary, swept away the Green Champions competition this year.

“They were the hands-down winner,” Carew said of TLAE, “Green has taken over their school.”

More than half of Duval County Schools have green teams, and this year 25—a record number—applied for the award. The student “Greenies,” as they’re called in the award application, are led by Green Champions Korey Van Wagoner and Helane Freeman.

Team leaders credit numerous community partners, including the school PTA, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, Beaches Turtle Patrol and the Adopt-a-Road cleanup program, to name a few. The Green Champions have hooked into information about grants to pay for various school-based projects, which helps keep the momentum going from year to year.

The children have learned about wellness and sustainability by participating in book drives, bottle-cap drives for Ronald McDonald House, food drives, milk carton recycling, honeybee education, hotel toiletries recycling for the homeless, butterfly gardening and more. The team has also monitored power and water use at the school, and provided feedback on that data. They’ve even had students report on their home water consumption, both before and after the students employed water conservation strategies.

“The kids are taking their green lessons home,” Carew said. “We’re trying to raise up a generation of kids who think being green is normal, and not being green is the exception.”

Carew credits the DCPS science department and leadership from district Chief of Staff Dana Kriznar for not only helping to infuse sustainability into the curriculum, but also collecting the data required for the voluminous, multifaceted 24-page award application.

“My part was only 25 percent of the entire application,” Carew said. To earn national Green Ribbon School District recognition, the applicant must be nominated by their state, which then forwards the information to the U.S. Department of Education.

“We were shortlisted by the State Department of Education and then we won at the national level,” she said. In an email acknowledging Duval’s nomination, Florida DOE officials relayed high praise for the school district:

It gives me great pleasure to inform you that your district application was the highest-scoring submission we have received since participating in the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School recognition initiative in 2012.

Duval was the only school district in Florida recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Green Ribbon School District.

But Carew doesn’t want Duval to rest on its laurels. She wants more green teams, led by more Green Champions, at more green schools. Even if teachers are delivering environmental education to their students outside the Green Champions program, she says, joining the Green Champion network pays off. The Green Champions newsletter, emailed regularly throughout Duval County, advertises grant, stipend and recognition opportunities for teachers.

Carew’s division will host a booth at the Teacher Supply Depot’s annual giveaway on Aug. 4, where teachers can pick up free, repurposed classroom, art and science supplies donated by community members and businesses. This giveaway was an important distinguishing highlight in the Green Ribbon application, Carew said. The Depot is a partnership between DCPS and the Duval County Council of PTAs. Since the Depot’s inception in 1996, it has saved $64 million in donated supplies that might have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

“Teachers start lining up at 6 a.m.,” she said. “We’ll be there all day telling people about the Green Champions program.”

To donate to the TEACHERS SUPPLY DEPOT GIVEAWAY, held 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Aug. 4, 3108 Lenox Ave., Westside, call 381-7480,

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