‘Small community, big student impact’

“Big News!” proclaimed Rappahannock County Public Schools spokesperson Holly Jenkins late Wednesday. “It was just announced this afternoon that RCPS is 1 of only 11 districts in the U.S. to be honored as the 2020 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School District Sustainability Awardees.”

Announced, no less, than by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“Small community, big student impact,” the Department of Education said of rural Rappahannock County and its school system.

“We are thrilled to be recognized for our sustainability and health and wellness efforts at a national level,” said schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley. “And for this announcement to be made on Earth Day is a wonderful gift to our community, wrapped with a pretty green ribbon.”

RCPS was nominated by the Virginia Department of Education, following an application process that was spearheaded by Dr. Robin Bolt, RCPS Executive Director of Administrative Services, in collaboration with Commit to Be Fit team members Jackie Tederick, Amanda Butler, and Holly Jenkins, and RCPS personnel Sarah Moore, Bethany Bostic, and Kathy Sickler. 

The Rappahannock school division was nominated for its work encompassing three pillars: efforts to reduce environmental impact and costs; efforts to improve the health and wellness of students and staff; and inclusion of environmental and sustainability education throughout the curriculum. 

A few of the school system’s highlights in these areas include a focus on energy efficiency in the facilities, recycling programs, the Mental Health Innovators Team, mental health first aid training for all staff, the outdoor learning classroom within the newly renovated courtyard, school gardens, the use of community partnerships with organizations such as RappFLOW for environmental education, and the Commit to Be Fit program, which promotes wellness among students, staff, and community.

The Education Department described in depth the schools’ accomplishments:

“Rappahannock County Public Schools (RCPS) is a small, rural school division, nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains and at the headwaters of the Rappahannock River. There are two schools in the district: Rappahannock County Elementary School and Rappahannock County High School, with a total district enrollment of 801 students. 

“Rappahannock County’s population of 7,456 residents embraces its scenic environment and strives to preserve the serene nature of the county. RCPS is accurately an extension of the county’s values. RCPS strives to limit the use of natural resources by making school facilities as efficient as possible.

“Both schools have had the windows replaced with thermal insulated ones. HVAC control systems have been installed at both schools allowing for lower temperatures to be set at the time classrooms and offices are not occupied. All exterior lighting has been replaced with energy-efficient lighting, which also reduces the amount of light pollution the school district produces. Electricity use is tracked on the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative website. 

“Both schools participate in student-led multi-stream recycling. RCPS technology department recycles all discarded technology equipment. Schools have composting bins and a food-sharing table to reduce food waste. Weekly classroom newsletters, folders, and other communications have gone digital. Cafeterias have reusable plates, and paper towel dispensers have been replaced with hand dryers. Rappahannock County High School uses rain-harvesting cisterns to collect and then water plants in the greenhouse and school gardens. RCPS operates its sewer treatment plants at each site. Self-operation of the treatment plants enables the school district the assurance that the effluent discharged meets all federal and state requirements. 

“Pest management includes monthly inspections and treatments to discourage pests in RCPS buildings. Staff are encouraged to keep food out of classrooms, close all doors, and report any issues of pests through RCPS’ online ticket system. A list of all chemicals and cleaners are kept in both schools as well as the School Board office. Each nurse and each custodian is given Safety Data Sheets. RCPS works closely with the county landfill to ensure all chemicals and materials are disposed of while meeting all federal and state requirements. 

“Dehumidification systems have been installed on all HVAC equipment. All exhaust fans and fresh air intake have been replaced or serviced. All air filters are changed quarterly, and all external air fresheners have been banned from the district to improve air quality. 

“All staff are trained in mental health first aid. RCPS employs guidance counselors, a school psychologist, and a licensed social worker, who all work cooperatively on the Mental Health Innovators Team. The anti-bullying program OLWEUS is implemented by RCPS to ensure each child has the opportunity to develop his or her social skills and empathy. Teachers are taught mindfulness and mediation so they can implement this with their students. 

Commit to Be Fit is a grant-funded program in RCPS, focusing specifically on creating a culture of health and wellness within cafeterias, classrooms, and community. The nutrition strand of the program focuses on promoting accessibility, education, and experiences. Salad bars have been implemented in both schools with 14 percent of the produce coming from local growers. All students are provided Power of Produce bucks to purchase foods from the local farmer’s market. The classroom component of Commit to Be Fit, located at the elementary school, is based on brain research that shows that moving enhances learning for all ages. 

“The Action Based Learning Lab is a series of 10 stations of movement designed to assist in filling developmental movement gaps while enhancing learning. The lab is also used to integrate classroom curriculum to enhance kinesthetic learning. A sensory pathway has been installed in the primary wing of the elementary school. At the high school, Commit to Be Fit has installed a Neuronasium, with pedal desks, standing desks, glider desks, balance desks, swivel desks, and wobble stools that promote balance and core strength.Teachers bring their students to this classroom for instruction. Commit to Be Fit offers weekly fitness classes and workshops to all staff, parents, and community members. During the 2018–19 school year, a total of 439 workshops, classes, and events were held at no charge to the participants. 

In RCPS, effective environmental and sustainability education begins in kindergarten and continues until the 12th grade. Kindergarten students learn the importance of recycling, conservation, and reusing products. Third-grade students create solar ovens. Culpeper Soil and Water helped sixth-graders build watershed models to explore runoff. RappFLOW and the RCPS STEAM coordinator co-teach a unit to explore ground cover and the impact of erosion and soil conservation. Master naturalists and master gardeners work with students on the importance of pollinators and ways to ensure their survival. The Trout in the Classroom program is implemented in both schools. Classrooms raise brook trout while researching, monitoring water samples, and working to maintain a healthy environment for the fish to grow. They then release these trout into local rivers. Students monitor two local rivers to compare and analyze how environmental impacts, such as farming, development, and riparian areas, affect the quality of the water. 

A new courtyard at Rappahannock County Elementary School includes raised beds for classrooms to grow herbs and vegetables, an outdoor classroom with an interactive monitor, a pond with a waterfall, composting bins, a kiln, a greenhouse, and a labyrinth. A new entrance was installed from the STEAM lab to promote the integration of instruction to allow teachers to bring their students to an outside learning environment. School gardens are located at both schools. Teachers can use the space to integrate into their curriculum, use the outdoor learning area for their lessons, or a healthy break for students. 

Designees from the school division participate in multiple professional development opportunities funded by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and Culpeper Soil and Water that focus on topics such as watersheds, water pollution, and ecosystems. Teachers also have the opportunity to participate in Project WET, Project Learning Tree, and Project WILD. These curricula are correlated with national and Virginia science standards of learning, which allows teachers to bring these experiences and knowledge back to the division to benefit students. Each year, fourth-grade students visit Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce, Virginia, to participate in various hands-on lessons, including games and writing activities that center around Virginia resources. Fifth- graders take a yearly trip to Shenandoah National Park. Students participate in an ongoing trash cleanup project on the county roads. Students are actively involved in “neighbors helping neighbors” sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, engaging in cleanups and planting flowers and shrubs. RCPS students recognize they are part of the Rappahannock community and that their participation is visible and valuable to this community.