Here’s how one NoVA elementary school is leaving a positive environmental footprint

By launching a schoolwide composting program, Coles Elementary School has made environmentally sustainable practices part of day-to-day life.

kids learning how to compost outside
Ramona Richardson demonstrates how to distribute waste into the composting bins in front of her students. (Photo courtesy of Ramona Richardson)

In our world today, political and social leaders seem to be getting younger and younger. Take 17-year-old Greta Thunberg, for example. Not even legally registered as an adult, Thunberg has gained a national following and reputation as an environmental activist across the globe. 

Even right here in Northern Virginia, students are learning to use their voice to solve issues larger than themselves from as young as kindergarten. And, in recent years, one local school—Coles Elementary School in Manassas—has made a name for itself as a leader in the environmental movement here in the community and beyond. 

According to the school’s website, Coles fosters a “community of environmentally minded thinkers where learning is achieved, real-world problems are explored and success is celebrated.” The statement holds true when looking at Coles’ various programs focused on sustainable efforts, one of which awarded Coles Elementary the Green Ribbon Award by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015.

In October of 2019, Coles took it a step further by launching a schoolwide composting initiative, with kindergarten teacher Ramona Richardson assisting in the process. While the initiative had been in the elementary school’s sights for a while, staff wasn’t able to implement the program until receiving proper funding from Prince William County’s Energy Management and Sustainability department.  

“There are so many lessons that can take place with composting,” explains Richardson. “Students will learn what compost is and its role in organic gardening; they will learn about the relationship between composting and recycling; they will learn how different materials break down by understanding the chemical process; and they will learn how temperature works in the decomposition.”

According to Richardson, a child old enough to throw trash away is old enough to take proper measures for a sustainable future, such as turning off lights when not in a room or sorting paper from plastic. With this recently implemented program, her kindergarten students are able to learn the importance of environmentally friendly practices while having fun too.

As a class, they took their discarded food waste to the compost tumblers, spun them and are awaiting the final results of the process. Come May, Richardson’s kindergartners will have the opportunity to divert the organic food waste, creating yet another lesson for the youngsters to take to heart. For Richardson, that’s the most important part.  

“These classroom lessons have come home and inevitably become dinner table conversation,” says Richardson. “Conor brings me toilet paper rolls from home because, ‘They are good for composting.’ Luca said she keeps trying to convince her parents to compost but they said they do not have a garden. Sophia is in our garden club and already composts at home.”

Currently, students are considered the leaders of the program, collecting the diverted organics from the cafeteria and adding proportions of brown matter, according to Richardson. While only in the early stages of the initiative, the impact at Coles Elementary School is on track to grow.

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