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Houlton Elementary: 1 of 4 'Green Ribbon Schools'

Houlton Elementary students celebrate reaching a summer reading minutes goal with an all-school reading event one afternoon in late fall. Submitted photo

Houlton Elementary was one of four Wisconsin schools to be honored with a national "Green Ribbon School" recognition by the U.S. Department of Education. Forty-five individual schools were recognized nationally through this program, which honors schools that teach sustainability, try to minimize environmental impacts, and make health and wellness programs a priority.

Houlton was one of two Wisconsin elementary schools nominated for the award.

"​The 2017​ US Department of Education Green Ribbon School award is a great honor, and one that comes from the work of many hands," said Houlton Elementary Principal Susan Hellmers. "Houlton has many programs and practices that were put in place by Ann Mitchell, the previous principal, and these practices have continued even with a change in administration.

"This honor speaks to the culture of Houlton, and honors the work of every staff member, student, and family."

Hellmers said the award recognizes a coordination of efforts between many people working to provide students with opportunities to learn about and experience "giving green and healthy."

"It's a great honor," she said, "and the staff, students, and families are very proud."

In order to receive the award, Houlton had to show reduced environmental impact, improved health and wellness, and effective environmental and sustainability education.

"Green ribbon" efforts

To reduce environmental impact, Hellmers said, Houlton has a student committee that promotes environmental awareness throughout the year.

"The student-generated ideas and suggestions are shared with the school, with peers encouraging each other to make a difference," she said.

Hellmers said Houlton teaches students about health and wellness in a variety of ways. One of those is a longstanding program called "Family, Fun and Fitness," which encourages students to be active with their families.

"During the months of January-April, participating students have the chance at being chosen to take part in a school-wide Minute to Win It activity," Hellmers said. "This encourages students and their families to be active during the winter months, and builds in a lot of fun as a reward."

Houlton also has a school garden cared for by a weekly garden club run by Master Gardener Sandy Madsen. Students are responsible for planting, maintaining and harvesting.

"We are also blessed with a kitchen staff that will find ways to incorporate the fresh produce into our school lunch program," she said. "We find that students are much more apt to eat the different vegetables that they raise in their own garden!

"We are having a grand opening of our new greenhouse this month, so our gardening efforts have increased even more this spring."

Environmental concerns are addressed through the Hudson School District's Integrated Units of Study, which also promote environmental and sustainability education. These units of study are held at a couple different grade levels, Hellmers said.

"For example, the second grade unit 'Choices Affect the Environment' includes the essential questions 'How do people's past, present and future choices affect the local and global environment?', 'What can I do to make a difference in the environment?', and 'How can I get others to change their habits to impact the environment?'

"Students have the opportunity to learn about their environment, and are encouraged to take action."

How it all began

These green efforts began with Mitchell's vision, said Hellmers, and have now become part of Houlton's daily routine.

"From our Master Gardener who coordinates 225 students working in the garden," she said, "​to our custodial staff who helps manage the compost bin, to classroom teachers and other staff who encourage greenhouse projects for their students, to the families who care for the garden over the summer, to the community volunteers who worked on construction of our new greenhouse — it takes many hands to keep Houlton's vision up and running. It is a group effort on so many levels."

Houlton was named a "Sugar Maple School" a few years ago, Hellmers said, and last summer was asked to apply for the next level: Green Ribbon School.

"Wisconsin's Department of Instruction (DPI) showed a strong interest in what was happening at Houlton," Hellmers said, "and worked with us on completing the application."

Hellmers wanted to pursue the Green Ribbon School application because Houlton is a unique place.

"I wanted an opportunity to highlight the great things that are happening," she said. "My own children were part of the Garden Club several years ago, and my husband and son spent many hours working on the greenhouse this past summer — so there are many aspects of Houlton's culture that are near and dear to my heart.

"I think this is a great way to honor the work of many people in our school, and to celebrate the outdoor space we are blessed to have at Houlton.​"

The programs that earned Houlton the "Green Ribbon" recognition have taught the students a great deal.

"​The students are ​reminded of the many opportunities they have at Houlton to learn about and experience the outdoors," she said. "They are also learning about and directly experiencing green and healthy habits that will have an impact on their lives beyond their Houlton years.

"Many families have commented that with their involvement in Houlton's Garden Club, their children are begging for gardens at home. This is exactly what we want to see happening."

Houlton's next project will be working with St. Joseph Township and St. Croix County on developing the trailhead for the St. Croix River Crossing Loop Trail, which will be located near Houlton, Hellmers said. ​​

"This will provide a great opportunity for our students to continue to learn and grow in our amazing outdoor space," Hellmer said, "right across the street."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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