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Prospect Sierra School Facilities Manager Steve Harrington walks a path made from recycled concrete at the school's middle school campus in El Cerrito, Calif. on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013. Prospect Sierra is the private school nominee from California that will compete in the second year of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School Awards. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

EL CERRITO -- Most private schools aren't rolling in cash, and making the operations of a school or business more friendly to the environment may call for extra investment.

But, despite needing to make every dollar count to provide its students with an outstanding education, Prospect Sierra School has worked hard to improve the earth-friendliness of its facilities over several years while transforming its curriculum to teach ecological values.

The changes have been so thorough and effective that it is the one private school statewide this year, along with three public schools, to receive the state Board of Education's nomination for the federal Green Ribbon Schools award.

The Green Ribbon Schools program, begun in 2011, honors schools that excel in reducing the environmental impact of their operations, improving the health of their students and providing effective education about the environment, according to the program's website. Forty states will participate this year.

"We were encouraged to apply because we're known to be a school that is on the leading edge of being a green school ... many years ago before people were talking about green schools," said Prospect Sierra Head of School Katherine Dinh.

The school has two campuses in the El Cerrito Hills, one an elementary school and the other a middle school, with a total enrollment of 467.


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Both campuses were built in the 1950s and purchased in the 1990s from what's now the West Contra Costa school district. Since then, the school has gone the extra mile to upgrade the buildings' seismic safety and energy efficiency.

Prospect Sierra invested $170,000 in a photovoltaic power system at the elementary school about six years ago that provides around 15 percent of the campuses' needs, said Steve Harrington, the school's facilities manager.

The energy savings will offset the cost of the system after about 15 years, he said.

In addition, the school is building a protected wooden deck that adds about 3,000 square feet to the kindergarten playground. School trustees agreed to spend more in materials and labor to use kiln-dried wood rather than pressure-treated timber that is processed using preservatives, Harrington said.

The school also has a student garden that is incorporated into the first-grade curriculum and that students in other grades help maintain, as well as waterless urinals in the student restrooms.

The students are also required to recycle and compost the leftovers from their lunches and eschew such convenient but non-recyclable items as zip-lock bags. Every classroom has a set of washable plates and glasses that are used in place of paper plates and cups for school pizza days and other events.

The middle school has a 180-gallon rainwater-collection system designed by students that is used to irrigate a student garden.

The school replaced a forced air furnace with an energy-efficient boiler and removed an asphalt playground that reflected heat into the atmosphere and replaced it with ecologically friendly artificial turf made of ground-up coconut husk and cork.

Prospect Sierra has hired a new bus company to bring students to the campuses from their homes as far south as Oakland and as far north as Hercules, Harrington said.

The nonprofit company matches the size of its alternative-fuel buses to the number of students on the bus route, thereby reducing fuel use and emissions.

"Now we aren't using a 40-seat bus to carry 15 kids," Harrington said.

The environment is central to the curriculum on both campuses, said Aaron Moorhead, a science teacher at the middle school.

Moorhead teaches earth and environmental science in his classes. Humanities teachers take students to small urban farms where they can see how food is grown locally, reducing transportation costs and the use of pesticides.

Second graders have a unit on raptors and the role they play in the food chain, and kindergartners learn about habitat restoration and help with a continuing project to restore Baxter Creek near their campus.

"We've galvanized the campuses, bringing it all down to the faculty and student level," Moorhead said. "We've found that there is really no blueprint for becoming a green school."

Prospect Sierra was chosen for the Green Ribbon Schools nomination after applying to the state Department of Education, and the school community will hear the results of the competition on Earth Day, April 22, Harrington said.

There is no limit on the number of Green Ribbon designations to be awarded from among the nominees, he said.