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St. James Academy named U.S. Green Ribbon School for sustainability education, efforts

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St. James students enjoy the garden bounty at their Green Ribbon School.
(Courtesy)

St. James Academy in Solana Beach was recently honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a Green Ribbon School.
The school takes a holistic, hands-on and spiritual approach to environmental and sustainability education and is the first Catholic school in Southern California to receive the distinction as well as the only private school in California to receive the honor this year.

Since the awards began in 2012, St. James and the Encinitas Union School District are the only two in San Diego County to have received the national recognition.

Anne Marie Oldham, St. James Academy’s sustainability director, has grown the school’s green initiatives over the course of the last three years, in addition to being the school’s music teacher. She considers the work the ultimate example of faith in action.

“It is science integrated with faith,” Oldham said. “We have a moral obligation to take care of the earth.”

St. James is among 35 schools, 14 districts and four postsecondary institutions that were honored for their innovative efforts to address the three pillars of the Green Ribbon program: reducing environmental impact and utility costs, improving health and wellness, and ensuring effective sustainability education.

St. James was nominated for the federal honor by the state—it has earned three California Department of Education Green Ribbon Awards. In 2017 St. James won bronze, in 2018 it was awarded silver and in 2019 St. James received the Green Achiever Award.

“California Green Ribbon Schools engage our kids to understand and act on behalf of the environment,” said State Superintendent Tony Thurmond. “From global-sized problems like climate change to local challenges like water quality, sustainability education grows the creativity, critical-thinking skills and environmental literacy our students need in order to lead now and into the future.”

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St James students built the pathways through the garden.
(Courtesy)

St. James will receive its award at a ceremony in Washington D.C. in September.

“This job is more of a labor of love for me,” said Oldham, who previously worked as an attorney for 20 years. She had been helping out with the music program at St. James Catholic Church when she was approached about taking her talents to the school.

For the last 11 years, Oldham has built a strong performing arts program with a thriving choir, student rock bands and sixth graders learning to play ukuleles.

Oldham uses music to teach her students about cultural diversity in the country and in the world—in one school show students sang everything from Louisiana Zydeco to Broadway show tunes. Their Christmas show featured Palestinian Christian and Native American selections and students recently learned to sing the song “Grateful: A Love Song to the World” using American Sign Language.

As much as possible, she works in joyful movement, “anytime you incorporate movement or music with learning, they remember it.”

In 2017, all students performed Oldham’s musical version of Dr. Seuss’s environmental fable “The Lorax,” using entirely recycled costumes. Based on the book that speaks for the trees, one line has become something of a school motto: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Oldham was inspired to care a whole awful lot and take action to reduce St. James’ environmental impact after hearing Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment in 2015, “On Care for Our Common Home.” In the pope’s teaching, he called on all people of faith to “hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

His message deeply resonated with Oldham and she wanted to introduce children at a young age to begin caring for the earth and the actions they can take to make a safe and healthy planet for the next generation, building a better future for all living things.

“We, as humans, must act as custodians of the beautiful world we were gifted by God,” Oldham said.

Oldham went to the administration and asked them to let her implement a sustainability program in addition to the arts program. Inspired by the green initiatives of the Encinitas Union School District , she started off by tackling single-use water bottles.
“Kids would drink two sips from the bottle and leave them all over campus,” Oldham said.

Every year since 2016, St. James has been a single-use plastic water bottle-free campus and thanks to donations from parents, two water bottle filling stations were installed in 2018.

The next step was making a commitment to efficient and clean energy, starting with installing LED lights throughout the campus in 2016, resulting in 30 percent in savings. The school installed rooftop solar in 2017 and in the first year solar generated 98 percent of the electricity for the school. St James has opted to purchase excess electricity from the Solana Energy Alliance under a 50 percent renewable and 75 percent greenhouse gas-free plan.

As a result of the steps taken over the last three years, five electric vehicle charging stations were installed this year from a $75,000 grant through Electrify America.

“Did you know San Diego is the seventh-most polluted city in the U.S.?” asks Oldham before sharing how since 2016 the fifth grade class has participated in a beach clean-up every year. This year on June 7, students picked up 409 pieces of trash from Solana Beach’s shore including plastic, Styrofoam and wrappers.

Perhaps what Oldham is most proud of is the action taken to make St. James a true green schoolyard. The outdoors at the small school is where the magic has really taken root.

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St. James' outdoor classroom.
(Karen Billing)

In 2016, St. James received a gift of $20,000 from Feed the Future to rebuild and enhance its organic edible garden and with another $20,000 in donations they were able to fence off an area of the school in 2018 to create additional green schoolyard space and an outdoor classroom. The outdoor classroom features cement benches in a row in front of a monarch mural painted by a school grandparent—the mural incorporates a blackboard wall for teaching.

In the edible garden, students plant seasonal vegetables and herbs and care for two citrus trees. After the harvest students have made soups, salads, smoothies and lemonade.

“If the students grow the vegetables, they will eat them,” Oldham said of her students developing a taste for sugar snap peas, broccoli and kale. After having it at school, Oldham said parents were contacting her telling her that their children were requesting kale soup for dinner.

With help from University of California Master Gardener and St. James parent Linda Haley, they now have a Kumeyaay Native American teaching garden, a pollinator garden and monarch garden that is in process to become a certified Monarch Waystation, providing plenty of milkweed, the only flower that Monarchs lay their eggs on.

Students played a role in building handicap-accessible pathways through the garden and seventh graders proudly built a biofiltration swale—the rain garden holds in moisture and rocks clean the water before it flows into the storm drain.

The pollinator garden blooms with the lavender flowers of Bee’s Bliss, a favorite of bees and hummingbirds, and purple butterfly bush. Kids enjoy finding the baby caterpillars in nature and putting them in the student-built butterfly house to give a safe spot to cocoon.

With 20 Torrey Pine trees on the St. James campus, Oldham said they are just starting to learn about conservation of the endangered species. Next year they would like to cultivate a baby Torrey Pine nursery.

With 44 schools in the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, Oldham would love to see the others work toward becoming Green Ribbon schools—already St. Martin of Tours Academy in La Mesa was a California Green Ribbon School awardee this year.

She feels it is her responsibility now to serve as a mentor for any area school looking to make the same kind of impact.

“It all kind of blossoms if you just take the first step,” Oldham said.