Gwynedd-Mercy Academy Elementary’s dedication toward going green has earned the private, Catholic co-educational institution a prestigious honor: It’s the only Pennsylvania school to earn a Green Ribbon Award for 2020.

Presented by the U.S. Department of Education, the award recognizes schools, districts, and institutes of higher education for excellence in reducing environmental impact and costs; improving the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and providing effective environmental and sustainability education.

Nationwide, 55 Green Ribbon awards were presented this year. Other than Gwynedd-Mercy, the only other school in the Philadelphia region to be honored is Cape May City Elementary School in Cape May, N.J.

Launched in 2012, the Green Ribbon has since been awarded to 23 schools in Pennsylvania and 25 in New Jersey.

“It was a distinct honor and privilege” — especially coming so close to “the 50th anniversary of Earth Day,” said GMAE principal Anne Knapke. “The really impressive thing is how much the students were involved in it.”

Among them is seventh-grader Regan Perez.

“One of the critical concerns is caring for the Earth; [our] school is built on mercy — it’s one of our core values,” Regan said. “It’s important to make the world a better place for everyone today — and for those who come after us, in the future.”

The fact that GMAE is the only school in the state to win the award this year only adds to the honor, said Lindsey Rauch, the school’s director of curriculum.

“We worked so incredibly hard,” she said, “and you’re surprised, of course, but also just elated. To be the only [winner] in Pennsylvania is something we could have never expected.”

Perhaps having its own greenhouse, installed only last spring, helped lift Gwynedd-Mercy above the radar. Students spent hours planting it with tomatoes, basil, dill weed, kale, buttercrunch and Bibb lettuces, carrots, microgreens, and sunflowers. Kathy Foy, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher, oversees the greenhouse and has been “a huge part of things, in terms of developing our plans,” said Rauch.

The greenhouse at Gwynedd-Mercy Academy Elementary.
Courtesy: Gwynedd-Mercy Academy Elementary
The greenhouse at Gwynedd-Mercy Academy Elementary.

Students are loving the place.

“Even at recess, some friends and I water the plants — it’s such a peaceful area where you can go and talk,” Regan added. The school has even hosted salad parties with produce the students have grown.

The greenhouse is just one way Gwynedd-Mercy is investing in its school and community, said Rauch. The school has also undertaken many environmental-friendly measures, like installing water stations, for use with reusable bottles, and replacing plastic cafeteria cutlery and dishes with reuseable items, which are washed in a new commercial-grade dishwasher.

In addition, students are not allowed to place books or papers near the HVAC vents, to ensure proper building ventilation. Carbon-monoxide detectors monitor the gas-fired water heaters. Carpooling is encouraged. Announcements are displayed on a large screen instead of on paper. The entire school is cleaned and sanitized every night with supplies that are eco-friendly. And the school donates used textbooks, novels, supplies, uniforms, and furniture to schools in need.

All of it helps teach students about the importance of individual efforts in helping the larger world.

“It’s important to create an environment that’s sustainable for future generations,” principal Knapke said. The school won a National Blue Ribbon award in 2017 for overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. Since GMAE has embraced a green way of operating, she added, “I know it’s very important to our students.”