The group of eco-conscious moms started out wanting to spur small changes at their neighborhood school: expanding recycling, cutting back on cafeteria waste, getting the students into composting.
The mothers, aided by other parent volunteers and a supportive staff at Manhattan Beach’s kindergarten-through-fifth-grade Grand View Elementary, launched the group Planet Pals, now called Grades of Green, which set various “green” goals for the school to follow, with trash reduction a key one. In a few years’ time, their ideas spread to other local campuses.
But these days Grades of Green is taking its message to educators and students around the country. Since launching its website, www.gradesofgreen.org, last Earth Day, the group has a following from some 33,000 students on 55 campuses, including those in Colorado, Tennessee, northern Virginia and Kentucky. Grades of Green hit the 50-school mark in November, and said this year it wants boost enrollment to 10 times that number.
Through the website, schools can sign up with Grades of Green and copy its programs and initiatives, including walk-to-school days, trash-free lunch days, discussions on getting involved in environmental causes and possibilities for reducing energy use and chemicals on campus. Use of the site is free, although the group asks that schools create online profiles. That’s because they eventually want to track their progress along the way. “The whole purpose of how we wrote these (initiatives) is so that they can be completely turn-key,” said Kim Lewand Martin, one of four co-directors running the nonprofit, and a former volunteer with Grades of Green. “We really want people to know it’s really easy to implement these activities. They’re free, they help save money and they’re fun.”
Martin, who has a background in environmental law, said the website’s launch has helped Grades of Green expand its outreach. As Grades of Green gained attention within the past few years in the local news media – along with an article in Disney’s FamilyFun magazine and exposure on the PBS show “Curiosity Quest Goes Green” – members found themselves confronted with questions from schools interested in taking on similar projects, Martin said. Putting the information online in one place seemed like an easy solution. “We felt that each of us was spending all this time on the phone, on the computer,” Martin said. “We just thought: Why not share what we know?” And so as schools joined the site, membership swelled.
But the growth is also due to the co-directors, who, in addition to Martin, are Suzanne Kretschmer, Lisa Coppedge and Shaya Kirkpatrick. On a recent visit to Grand View, they donned matching olive Grades of Green T-shirts and talked with teachers and students during the lunch hour. Even though it was pizza day – when plastic foam trays and utensils are plentiful, they say – many students still seemed to follow the school’s advice by carrying lunches in reusable containers. A compost station just outside the cafeteria collects food waste that will eventually get broken down into dirt.
The four women – all of whom have children at Grand View and spend 20 to 40 hours a week working with the nonprofit – meet weekly to discuss new ideas and are “networking all the time,” said Kretschmer, who blogs about school news, contests and other events on the Grades of Green website. Recently, Kretschmer said, Grades of Green welcomed a school in Washington state through a connection she made at a college reunion. Another was borne out of a green schools conference she attended in Minnesota. And a northern Virginia link was a natural one, given that former Grades of Green co-chairwoman Inga Middleton lives in that area now with her family. “It’s been such an incredible journey, and I’ve learned so much,” Kretschmer said. “I really struggled with how to get a small group of kids to change habits, and now we have over 30,000.” firstname.lastname@example.org