LA CENTER — Nestled over the river and through the woods on the northern end of Clark County, La Center High School has become a beacon for environmental sustainability.
Just last month, that beacon caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Education, which honored La Center as a 2022 Green Ribbon School — an accolade awarded to just a few dozen schools across the country.
Though it’s a testament to the hard work put in by students in the last year, La Center teachers say it’s better described as the culmination of over a decade’s worth of student dedication to transforming the school’s infrastructure.
Being named a Green Ribbon School recognizes more than the efforts of any one group of students, said Rebecca Morris, an environmental studies teacher at La Center.
“We’re doing authentic work on our campus and in our community,” said Morris, a Brush Prairie native who’s been teaching in La Center for 24 years. “There’s such a sense of ownership from the students that their knowledge and skills just increase almost effortlessly.”
A living legacy
The environmental studies class — part of the district’s Career and Technical Education program — and the Environmental Action Team began in 2008 with a blend of learning regional ecosystems and recognizing how the town showcased many of them. Students participated in clean-up projects throughout La Center and Clark County until the urge of stewardship turned toward the school itself.
Their first project was to transform an empty, forgotten-about plot of dried grass behind the school.
“The whole area was a forgotten passageway,” Morris said. “Kids, years ago, were like, ‘This is kinda ugly.’ ”
What started with planting a handful of flowers became a 4,000-square-foot garden in just a few years. Today, the garden is a staple of the school’s grounds, providing fresh herbs and produce for both the school’s cafeteria and local food banks.
“It’s been a huge year for blueberries,” Morris said, just before picking a handful and popping one into her mouth. Blueberries shared with The Columbian team were, indeed, delicious.
Students in a variety of other classes use the space for educational purposes as well, such as field assignments in science class or as an outdoor reading space for English classes.
Miguel Delgado, a senior at La Center who’s been in the environmental science class since his sophomore year, has overseen the garden on his own in the summer months.
“My mom’s really into gardening, and I’ve loved working at it with my hands,” Delgado said. “It’s been great for me to be outside, doing this.”
Becoming a Green Ribbon School
Though the garden has become a focus of the club’s efforts, it’s just one piece of six categories necessary to receive Platinum certification by Washington Green Schools, Morris said. Various sustainability projects over the years have earned La Center accolades in the areas of waste and recycling, water usage, solar energy, grounds and gardens, healthy school buildings and transportation.
For example, La Center has worked to install solar panels on the building’s roof since 2006. An iPad on display in the school’s entrance provides up-to-date data on the amount of energy produced by the panels over time.
Collecting rainwater, composting, monitoring local water quality, raising and releasing salmon — the list of projects goes on.
In 2016, La Center became certified in each of the six categories and earned its spot as a Platinum school. But because that wasn’t enough, they did each of the categories over and became double Platinum.
It was during an Environmental Action Team meeting in June that Morris got the call about becoming a Green Ribbon School — a challenging application process she said club leaders Sabrina Joner, Bella Parke and Sierra Gramm took charge of.
“I’m lucky to have girls in leadership that get stuff done. I really didn’t know how much time I could do personally,” Morris said. “The girls said, ‘Tell us what we need to do.’ It was pretty awesome when we found out. I asked if it was all right if I could put them on speaker phone.”
Morris will travel to Washington, D.C., with Joner, Parke, Gramm and a handful of other students from July 24 to July 30 to officially receive the award.
A new project
Despite the chance to bask in the success of receiving the Green Ribbon, La Center’s students aren’t done.
Over the past year, the environmental action team has put together an 85-page binder in order to begin construction of a new 4-acre garden next to the school’s football field. The terraced space will allow them to expand the current garden’s efforts, in addition to building a shed for additional horticulture space. The class has plans for the shed to be solar-powered with the help of Clark County Utilities.
The binder, in all its glory, has been almost exclusively compiled by the students — with Morris giving much of the credit to the club’s vice president, Sabrina Joner. Littered throughout its pages are dense building permits, detailed to-scale depictions of the garden-to-be and renderings of the shed done in Google SketchUp, a design software.
“These students are doing things to not only learn how to use sustainable practices, but they’re learning systems like the city’s permit process,” said Peter Rosenkranz, La Center School District’s superintendent.
“The city is fully displaying the process of making sure we’re doing this correctly; they sent back a bunch of need for additional info. Instead of Morris doing it herself, she passes it back to the students.”
Morris looks forward to the opportunity for her and her students to put La Center in the national spotlight for efforts that have defined her time teaching in the district.
“This whole thing has created a real sense of community for our school,” she said. “This is us. This is La Center High School.”