It all started with Forest Lake High School's environmental club. Earth and space sciences teacher Devon Vojtech said students in the club wanted to research the district's sustainability efforts and apply to become a Green Ribbon School.
Students had to find evidence that their school was committed to reducing environmental impact, improving health and wellness and educating students about sustainability. They spent time documenting their school's efforts, and on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education recognized Forest Lake as one of 35 Green Ribbon Schools nationwide.
"They spent a lot of time doing that — collecting information about how much energy we were saving and how much more natural light we were letting in with new building renovations," said Renae Reedy, communications coordinator for Forest Lake Area Schools.
Reedy said reducing environmental impact has been a district focus for a while.
"We have done a lot of work in the last several years with new building projects to be as environmentally friendly as possible," Reedy said. "Obviously for environmental purposes, but also the cost savings in being energy efficient, and so it's really nice to have that recognition for the district and the school."
Reedy said the district is saving roughly $200,000 per year in energy costs just from installing solar panels.
Changes in irrigation equipment like rain detectors and programmable sprinklers have also helped conserve water. The school has saved more than 4 million gallons of water over six years. And it's working on retention ponds to avoid polluting a nearby lake.
But the changes go beyond infrastructure. The school has also instituted a science-based climate change curriculum that all graduating students are required to participate in. It offers outdoor education and agriculture courses. Among other health initiatives, it screens incoming students for depression and runs a mentoring program between older and younger students.
Teacher Devon Vojtech has been working in the Forest Lake district for seven years, and said she's seen the school make continuous changes to reduce its environmental impact. She also sees it support student agency to make the school environment healthier.
"It is evident that students really care about the choices that are being made that impact them and impact their future. And it's really powerful to see the district support these changes throughout the years," Vojtech said.