We are thrilled to share the news that John B. Cary Elementary School (Cary) was named, on Earth Day, as a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School for 2022. Across the country, 27 schools (with only two in Virginia, both of which are in Richmond), five districts, and four postsecondary institutions also received this national recognition.  

As described by the USDOE:

The aim of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) is to inspire schools, districts, and institutions of higher education (IHEs) to strive for 21st-century excellence by highlighting promising school sustainability practices and resources that all can employ. To that end, the award recognizes schools, districts, and IHEs that:

  1. reduce environmental impact and costs;
  2. improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and
  3. provide effective environmental and sustainability education

Combined progress in ALL three of these areas, known as Pillars, serves as the basis for recognition.

For the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay (Alliance), this recognition comes after a two-year partnership with the school that continues to thrive today.  In February 2020, the Alliance was fortunate enough to connect with Cary’s Principal, Michael Powell, at the opportune time. This was right before schools shut down due to the pandemic, and when Powell was seeking funding for his project, No Child Left Inside Initiative. Alliance’s RiverWise Schools team took action and applied for a ConseRVAtion Fund grant through the Community Foundation with matching support from Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities, to bring a reforestation project, just one piece of  Principal Powell’s vision, to life.

From left to right: Mary Petres (Owner, Manchester Gardening), Meredeth Dash (VA Environmental Education Specialist), and Christina Bonini (Green Infrastructure Project Manager).

Designed by partner, Manchester Gardening, the reforestation project serves as an outdoor learning space for students, a gathering place for staff, and a neighborhood amenity for the surrounding community. To date, 187 native plants, 53 shrubs, and 16 trees have been installed to mimic forest succession. When fully mature, the space will include a meadow, understory, and a circle of mature trees. Each section of the reforestation project was placed with intentionality to allow students to study the effects of urban heat islands over time as the forest matures. In 2021, the Alliance trained Cary’s staff on how the space can integrate with different content areas of their curriculum.  The 15,000 square foot project adds a tree canopy and planted green space to what was previously an empty lawn while offsetting paved surfaces around the school. On rainy days, students can observe how the area functions to slow stormwater runoff from nearby sports fields and blacktop, allowing it to soak in, and keep pollution from entering the nearby James River. Currently, regular project maintenance is being facilitated by the Alliance and Manchester Gardening with the support of community partners, HandsOn volunteers, and Cary PTA. 

Me (Meredeth Dash) and Mary Petres of Manchester Gardening, the project manager for this install

Being named a Green Ribbon School is not the only award for this school. Principal Powell was named by the Alliance as the Virginia 2021 Watershed Champion during “The Taste” event in September 2021. Principal Powell has committed his entire life’s work to enriching the lives of others, especially young people. His passion and dedication to advocating for environmental education are relentless,  particularly when it comes to those who find themselves voiceless in society. Mr. Powell sincerely believes that to secure a better future, all people must continue to learn from past lessons. Thus, he has spent an extraordinary amount of his time and physical resources fighting for social justice, aligning with supportive partners, and creating change on his own school campus.

The Alliance is proud to be partnered with John B. Cary Elementary; a school that provides students with opportunities to learn from natural resources.  Being named a Green Ribbon School is just another step in the vision that Principal Powell has for his community of learners. Congratulations Principal Powell and John B. Cary!  We can’t wait to see what is next!  

Learn more about what it means to be a Green Ribbon School here.