At Sparks Elementary School in Baltimore County, MD, Pokey Fair was teaching math, science, reading, writing and research skills—and environmental stewardship—to a small team of fifth-grade students. All at the same time.

The students clustered around their teacher as she spoke.

“You’re writing to ask for grant money, but you’ll each be working on different things,” Fair told her students. “You need to do some research first.”

She nodded toward one rapt listener. “Your job is to cover the tree planting. To start, we’ll need to figure out how many trees we’ll need, and what kinds.”

To another, “Your job is to figure out how many buses we’ll need for the grass planting trip and what they cost. You’ll have to go to the office and ask some questions.”

“We also need to decide how long to stay, so we can figure out the costs for a substitute teacher. Should we stay for a half day and do the planting, or stay for the whole day so that we can hike around and do more studies?” Fair asked.

The answer to that one was easy.

Fair and her students were working on grant applications to fund three hands-on projects that help students protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay. One project would create a forest buffer to protect water quality in a local stream. Another would help the “EcoSharks” club plant a rain garden to reduce stormwater runoff. Another would help trays of underwater grasses—nurtured for weeks in the classroom—find a permanent home in Bay waters as critical habitat for fish, crabs and shellfish.

These projects are three of many activities that have won Sparks Elementary recognition as a Maryland Green School. The honor is reserved for schools that have moved environmental education beyond the bounds of individual classrooms to involve the entire student body, the school building, its grounds and the community at large.

The Maryland Green Schools program is sponsored by the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries coordinates a similar program known as Virginia Naturally Schools.

Both aim to produce better students, better citizens and a healthier Chesapeake Bay.

“Green Schools is far more than one fired-up teacher,” said Jeanne Armacost, co-chair of the MAEOE Green Schools committee. “It’s cross-disciplinary. The theme of the environment is used as a context behind learning, drawing on connections that kids have to their personal, real world.”

While many schools work effectively on single issues or projects, such as recycling or schoolyard habitat, these programs raise the bar with a wider set of criteria designed to involve the entire school community. The specifics differ by program, but focus on common themes: curriculum connections and field experiences for students, professional development for teachers, good stewardship practices for the school building and its grounds, and developing community partnerships.

“In the long run, we want an environmentally literate citizenship,” said Suzie Gilley, chair of the Virginia Naturally Schools program. “You can’t have that if you just focus on one issue, or if the work doesn’t involve your community and some kind of action.”

Both programs encourage student activities that help to meet the “meaningful watershed experience” goals developed by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

“Learning without doing isn’t really learning,” Gilley said. “Students always want to know why they are learning a subject. An environmental project will be remembered throughout their life, along with why they planted grasses, oysters or a butterfly garden.”

Thirty schools participate in the Virginia Naturally program, with approximately 20 located in the Bay watershed.

In Maryland, where the MAEOE has poured energy into promoting and supporting their program, 112 schools have won recognition as Green Schools. Green Schools exist in 19 of Maryland’s 24 counties, and also in the city of Baltimore.

In some locations, support from county administrators has quickened the spread. Armacost, who works as a natural resource specialist for Baltimore County, promotes the Maryland Green Schools program because the county believes it is a worthwhile investment.

“We realized that the Maryland Green Schools program is an elegant, holistic approach to having adults and kids all play a role in their local watershed,” Armacost said. “School properties encompass a lot of acreage. Where schools use conservation landscaping and best management practices, they address pollution and serve as models for the neighborhood.”

School administrations also play an important role. Their support, especially at upper levels, makes it easier for teachers to participate in the range of activities that Maryland Green Schools and Virginia Naturally Schools promote.

Armacost said that support from public school administrators is a major factor in Baltimore County’s success, where 19 Green Schools give it the greatest number of participating schools in any Maryland county. The county not only promotes the program, but offers training to support it. A recent three-day event for principals focused on watershed awareness, targeting a collection of linked schools: two high schools and all of the elementary and middle schools that feed them.

Superintendents and principals support these programs because they are good for academic skills, too.

“So often, kids learn things just because the teachers tell them to. But when you use the environment as a context, they get excited. They take a vested interest in their learning. It’s local, it’s something they can touch, and they want to learn more,” Gilley said.

Research increasingly affirms this. A 1998 study by the State Education and Environmental Roundtable found that using the environment for cross-disciplinary studies led to higher scores on standardized tests in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Schools enjoyed more student enthusiasm and fewer discipline problems. Other studies showed an increase in teachers’ job satisfaction.

A series of follow-up studies reinforced some of these findings, including one focused on Maryland Green Schools. The 2004 MAEOE study compared math and reading scores from fifth and eighth students in Green Schools to those from non-Green Schools. After controlling for variables such as social and economic factors, researchers found that students at Green Schools performed at a higher level on standardized tests than students at non-Green Schools.

At Sparks Elementary, principal Barbara Bisset sees the positive effects of the Green Schools program firsthand. “Green Schools doesn’t replace the required curriculum. It just extends it,” Bisset said. “Kids still use their reading, writing and math skills, but it’s in a real-world application.”

Green Schools activities at Sparks Elementary are guided by a teaching team that includes two fifth grade teachers, the physical education teacher, the music teacher and school nurse. But projects involve the whole school and draw many parent volunteers.

Last year, they tackled erosion problems on the school grounds.

“We did a buffer planting along the stream. Before the planting, the science team worked with fifth graders to research what buffers do and what kind of trees to use. Then the fifth graders taught the other kids about why they were doing this and how it will make things better down the road,” Bisset said.

Other projects include a butterfly garden and a one-mile nature trail with bluebird boxes. Students monitor the wildlife while practicing math and graphing skills. A recycling program reduces cafeteria waste, but also raises money for the school by working with companies that pay cash for used paper and ink cartridges.

This spring, Sparks Elementary will be the host of a full-day environmental fair at the school. Students will join in watershed education with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, learn about worm composting from a local garden club, explore integrated pest management with the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, and participate in a tree planting with the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy and the Greater Sparks Glencoe Community Council.

Sparks Elementary is fortunate to have extensive grounds and an active corps of parents, but Armacost said that every school, public or private, should operate as a green school. In urban settings, the ecosystem is still at work even if it is less green.

“It’s about looking at your school and finding opportunities where you are. The Ascension Catholic School just southwest of Baltimore is on a concrete pad, but it was one of the first Maryland Green Schools,” Armacost said. The school made up for its lack of on-site restoration opportunities by growing aquatic grasses in the classroom and then planting them in a Bay tributary.

And while teachers and students put plenty of energy into these projects, they often cost the school little or nothing.

Donations of materials and expertise come from many partners, including community businesses, state agencies and watershed groups. Teachers in Virginia Naturally Schools receive a free, full day of training from state resource education specialists at their own schools on the topic of their choice.

Nature centers offer lots of resources, too. The MAEOE has launched a Maryland Green Centers program to identify environmental education centers that are especially active with Green Schools, providing models, teacher training and classroom support. Virginia is beginning a master naturalist program that will train volunteers to share their knowledge with schools.

Small grants help to fund restoration projects, field expenses and even some teacher training. Virginia Naturally Schools have benefited from grantmakers such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office and the Virginia Environmental Endowment. In Maryland, schools often find support through the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Aquatic Resource Education program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The network of partners supports beginning schools, as it did for Sparks Elementary.

“At the beginning, I went to one workshop on schoolyard habitat and met all these people I could work with—friendly, easy, accessible partners who are realistic about all of the demands on teachers,” Fair said. “Whenever I’m involved with one thing, I learn about five more.”

Virginia Naturally Schools offers tiered recognition so that schools can be rewarded for smaller, early efforts, while the more comprehensive program takes shape.

“Every school can get there,” Gilley said, “and they can do it in baby steps.”

For information about Virginia Naturally Schools, visit

For information about the Maryland Green Schools program, visit