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NC Schools Earn U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Awards

The U.S. Department of Education today released the names of the 2021 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools, District Sustainability Awardees, and Postsecondary Sustainability Awardees. Four North Carolina honorees are among a host of schools and districts nationwide named today as U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools for their efforts to reduce environmental impact, improve health and wellness and ensure effective sustainability education.

Wrightsville Beach Elementary School and DC Virgo Preparatory Academy, both in New Hanover County, each received the Green Ribbon School Award. The Wake County Public School System received a District Sustainability Award in recognition for its district wide efforts and UNC Wilmington received a Postsecondary Sustainability Award for achievements at the university level. All of this year’s honorees have earned the prestigious recognition in North Carolina.

This year, Green Ribbon honorees were named from a pool of nominees representing 20 states. Across the country, 27 schools, three early learning centers, five districts, and five postsecondary institutions are being honored for their innovative efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, improve health and wellness, and ensure effective sustainability education. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona made the announcement and congratulated the schools, districts and postsecondary institutions for their commitment to sustainable facilities, health and classroom practices.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said the North Carolina schools teach key environmental values that can shape the community now and in the future.

“Congratulations to these four schools on their Green Ribbon Award,” Truitt said. “They are an example for how to implement environmentally conscious initiatives and teach our students lifelong lessons of global citizenship.”

Including the winners announced today, 14 North Carolina schools, three school districts and two universities have received awards, first given in 2012 to honor schools that “exercise a comprehensive approach to creating ‘green’ environments through reducing environmental impact, promoting health, and ensuring a high-quality environmental and outdoor education to prepare students with the 21st century skills and sustainability concepts needed in the growing global economy.”

The Green Ribbon Schools Award is the first comprehensive federal policy for schools related to environment, health and education. It describes a thoughtful vision for the nation’s schools, sets a high bar for success, and raises the profile of individual green schools and the states that support them.

Here are highlights about this year’s four North Carolina honorees, summarized from a report by the U.S. Department of Education:

Serving its students in New Hanover County since 1954, Wrightsville Beach Elementary School, also a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School, serves 271 students in grades kindergarten through 5th grade. Thanks to renovations from a 2014 New Hanover County School bond that brought the school under one roof, the school uses its natural surroundings to enhance student learning by providing authentic experiences through a strong marine science program. The only one of its kind in the region, the marine science program plays a significant role in the culture of the school with life lessons of citizenship, team building, problem solving and responsibility embedded in the program. A student-led, school-wide initiative for recycling continues each year and is led by 4th grade students. The school integrates daily health and wellness for all students and staff.

D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy is a highly diverse public K-8 lab school that is operated by UNC Wilmington in partnership with the New Hanover County school district. The goal for instruction at the school is guided by an approach called PIER (Personalized, Inquiry-based, Experiential, and Reflective), and the school emphasizes interdisciplinary STEM education, sustainability and environmental literacy. The focus is on a collaborative place of learning “where families come to school together,” and it has empowered a focus on sustainability for K-8 students. DC Virgo has worked consistently to reduce environmental impact through a student-led recycling program, seeking to maximize water conservation and the use of alternative transportation. The school has actively fostered use of outdoors learning spaces as well. Instead of irrigation, two rain barrels are located on campus to collect runoff for the school’s gardening initiatives. The DC Virgo learning community is simultaneously focused on addressing the physical health and social-emotional needs of their students and uses a “kinship model” to facilitate relationship building between staff, families and students.

The Wake County Public School System provides experiences focused on environmental sciences and sustainability that are integrated throughout the Pre-K through 12th grade curriculum. With 191 total schools, the district serves over 161,000 students and employs over 19,000 people. K-12 science education focuses on the North Carolina State Essential Standards, science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and integration of concepts across the curriculum. Teachers integrate and facilitate learning through frameworks such as project-based learning and understanding by design. Several schools enhance student learning opportunities through magnet programs, early colleges, and career academies. Integrated school and community projects focus on maintaining a healthy campus ecosystem, solving issues of food insecurity within the community, and tackling global topics that promote empathy. The district’s central services departments also promote healthy ecosystems, conservation, and reducing its carbon footprint. Student experiences are influenced by organizations in the region that are innovative, environmentally conscientious and focus on scientific research.

As North Carolina’s coastal university, UNC Wilmington prides itself on maintaining the local area and community’s natural allure and resources. Creating a healthy campus is incorporated through many programs that promote emotional well-being, sustainability, and financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, spiritual development. Healthy Hawks is a cross-campus campaign promoting programs and educational opportunities that support this spectrum of wellness. UNCW strives to weave long-term sustainability into the university’s mission of teaching, scholarship and service in a way that demands economic vitality, social equity and environmental stewardship.

National award recipients will be honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., tentatively planned for September. Additional information on the Green Ribbon Schools Award program is available on the U.S. Department of Education’s website or by contacting North Carolina Coordinator Jon Long with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s School Planning section at

The list of all selected schools, districts, colleges, and universities, as well as their nomination packages, can be found here. A report with highlights on the honorees can be found here. More information on the federal recognition award can be found here. Resources for all schools to move toward the three “pillars” of the program can be found here.


EdNC staff reporting relies on staff, interns, and columnists.