Going Green in the Bluegrass State: Sustainable Schools in Kentucky

Imagine this. Students, teachers, and administrators working together to achieve a common goal – improving the environmental quality and sustainability of school campuses. Now imagine 100 schools across one state empowering their students to use STEM to create greener, healthier schools.

This happens to be the reality in Kentucky, thanks to Ashley Hoffman, Kentucky’s PLT State Coordinator, and her amazing team at the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education (KAEE) in collaboration with the Kentucky Environmental Education Council (KEEC)!


Kentucky Green Schools Program

The Kentucky Green Schools program launched in June 2023 with the help of a Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Education Grant to carry on the work that KEEC led through the former Kentucky Green & Healthy Schools program. PLT is an award-winning educational nonprofit and initiative of SFI.

Using PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations as the basis for this new program, KAEE adapted the investigations, working closely with State PLT Coordinators in Kansas and Maryland. Comprised of five separate investigations, Energy, Environmental Quality, School Site, Waste & Recycling, and Water, the GreenSchools Investigations guide empowers students to investigate and measure their school’s environmental footprint, address challenges, and develop creative solutions to make their school a healthier environment and even achieve cost savings!

Since last summer, over 100 schools and districts have registered to participate in the program, with several recently submitting for recognition status. KAEE secured several mini grants that many schools applied for to help them launch their investigations, 10 of which were focused on water, and a few on energy.


Empowering Student Leaders

One of the best things about the investigations is how empowered and engaged students feel. When given the opportunity to take ownership of projects to improve their schools and communities, students thrive, as they’re able to be creative and innovative. Together, students are driving incredible change.

Ready to be inspired?

Here are some of the recent projects schools in Kentucky completed:

One school placed rain barrels throughout their campus to capture stormwater runoff. But the students took things a little further, putting the fun into functional! They launched a design competition to decorate each rain barrel, so not only will they be great for containing water to use for irrigation and other non-potable uses, but they’ll add an element of beauty and art to the campus. In addition, the school is hosting a stream cleanup as part of Lexington Water Week, with students putting their creative hats on again to film a commercial to promote the event.

At one high school, they had a rain garden and outdoor classroom that had turned into a bit of an eyesore, filled with weeds. Students have worked tirelessly to improve the garden and outdoor classroom, cleaning it up, and adding new native plants. Plus, they created a monarch waystation to support monarch butterfly survival.

Another high school focused on cleaning up waterways in their community. From picking up litter at lakes, rivers, and creeks, students are making big impacts throughout Rockcastle County.

Three cheers for these students leading the way in creating healthier, more sustainable environments and communities!

Monarch butterflies

“Sometimes it’s easy to feel like you’re not making a big difference, but when I get to hear about these great projects and the impacts they have, it gives me hope and gets me excited about the work we do,” says Ashley. Without the support of Ashley’s leadership, her team at KAEE, and the team at KEEC, there wouldn’t be a Kentucky Green Schools program. We are excited to see what amazing work other schools continue to do throughout Kentucky!


Becoming a Green School

Are you ready for your school or district to become more sustainable? Ashley recommends that interested schools begin by taking on just one investigation per year. “The GreenSchools Investigations are a great tool for schools to find where their pain points are. You complete the investigation and can focus on improving the areas and the students can help drive people to improve.”

While there is the national Green Ribbon Schools program (many of which have been named certified PLT GreenSchools) through the U.S. Department of Education, many states have their own recognition programs for school sustainability.

For example, the Kentucky Green Schools program has four recognition levels:

  • Green: Completion of one project
  • Silver: Completion of 2-4 projects
  • Gold: Completion of all 5 projects
  • Model Green School: Gold Level + at least one project per year

If you’re ready to go green at your school, check out PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations as a great way to get started. Ashley loves “how well-rounded PLT is and how easy it is to incorporate into any topic area. The GreenSchools program touches on so many different topics, and it gives us a great resource to provide to educators to do their jobs.”

Purchase a printed version of the Greenschools Investigations guide from the PLT Shop, create an account to individually access and download the adult leader guide and investigations. Visit plt.org/greenschools to learn more.

Megan Annis

Megan Annis

Megan is Project Learning Tree (PLT) and PLT Canada's Director of Sales and Marketing. She believes working with youth is the key to building a sustainable future and is passionate about helping bring environmental education, forest literacy, and career pathways products to market.