Portsmouth schools are keeping it green

District’s sustainability efforts make it one of only 5 in the nation to receive Green Ribbon designation

By Jim McGaw
Posted 4/27/21

PORTSMOUTH — Signs of the Portsmouth school district’s commitment to sustainability issues were plentiful on Saturday.

At Cloverbud Ranch off Jepson Lane, workers and volunteers were …

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Portsmouth schools are keeping it green

District’s sustainability efforts make it one of only 5 in the nation to receive Green Ribbon designation


PORTSMOUTH — Signs of the Portsmouth school district’s commitment to sustainability issues were plentiful on Saturday.

At Cloverbud Ranch off Jepson Lane, workers and volunteers were busy putting up the frame of a high tunnel where Portsmouth Middle School students will grow a variety of plants on their own Portsmouth Ag Innovation Farm.

Just up the road at the middle school, more volunteers started building a greenhouse, which will be used by the young farmers to grow seeds for the planting season.

And over at Portsmouth High School, members of the school’s Green Club were wrapping up nearly 300 saplings that were ordered by local residents, with some students going directly to homes to plant them.

The school district’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, because last Thursday, April 22 — Earth Day 2021 — the U.S. Department of Education announced that the Portsmouth School Department was one of only five districts nationwide to be honored with the federal Green Ribbon designation. 

The award is in recognition of “innovative efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, improve health and wellness, and ensure effective sustainability education.”

“We join a distinguished list of Rhode Island award-winners and are the only Rhode Island district to receive this honor,” Superintendent Thomas Kenworthy told parents in an e-mail. (While Barrington Middle School was designated as a Green Ribbon school, Portsmouth was the sole municipality in Rhode Island to be honored with a Green Ribbon as a district.)

“There are many individuals throughout our district who helped to make this possible, but none more than Margie Brennan, our district science coach. Please join me in congratulating Margie and all in the (district) for their efforts,” Mr. Kenworthy added.

Mrs. Brennan and Sara Churgin, district manager of the Eastern R.I. Conservation District, got the Ag Innovation Farm — The “Ag” stands for agriculture — off the ground after the latter woman reached out about establishing a school garden at the middle school. Martin Beck of New England Grass Fed, who leased 100 acres of the former Van Hof Nurseries property for his beef business assembled a co-op of like-minded artisan farm producers, set aside six acres of Cloverbud Ranch for the students.

Now there are 46 students in grades 5 through 8 signed up for the Ag Innovation Farm, and they’ll start getting their hands dirty again next week, Mrs. Brennan said.

The high tunnel was funded through a National Grid grant that Ms. Churgin wrote, and Davis Logan Construction donated time, staff and materials to build it, she said. 

Also on Saturday, a donated tool shed was built by Bob Lantz of Bill’s Sales and Rick Santos, and they brought it over to the farm. Eric Schrer, the farm’s environmental conservation consultant, oversaw the projects while Mrs. Brennan was helping to build the middle school’s greenhouse, which is not yet complete.

Trees for all

The PHS parking lot was bustling with activity Saturday as members of the school’s Green Club greeted members of the public who were picking up orders of red maple, eastern red bud and eastern white pine saplings.

The event was one of several across the country spawned by Tree-Plenish, started a few years ago as a senior project by some high school students in Massachusetts who have since gone on to college.

“They noticed that the consumption of paper they were using inside their high school was crazy and they looked into how much paper they were really using,” said Ella West, president of the PHS Green Club.

The students were originally going to support efforts to cut down on paper usage in school, but determined that would be difficult, added Jean-Paul Arsenault, a PHS science teacher and the Green Club’s advisor.

“So they said, ‘Why don’t we offset that by planting more trees?’” he said.

Other schools came aboard and computed how much paper they go through annually. At Portsmouth High, it was roughly estimated the school used enough paper every year to require the cutting of 175 trees.

The schools participating in Tree-Plenish commited themselves to planting at least as many trees that were used to produce the paper they went through annually. “They have about 40 kids from different colleges across the country and they’re supplying about 1,900 trees to different schools around the country,” Mr. Arsenault said.

This is the first year the Green Club has hosted the planting event, and 284 trees in all were delivered to the club. “The trees came to my house in five-foot boxes, and here we are,” said Ella.

The first 200 trees were given away thanks to a generous donation from Clements’ Marketplace, Mr. Arsenault said. 

“After that, it was $5 per sapling. When they ordered, they had the choice to either come pick up the tree or they could have volunteers come and plant it,” he said, adding that about 150 trees were planted at approximately 40 different homes.

Most of the volunteers were high school students, but Mr. Arsenault ran into an alumnus who showed up. “She was a girl I hadn’t seen in 10 years, and she came by to help out.”

‘Built up together’

Mr. Arsenault was involved in some of the application process for the Green Ribbon distinction, but he gave most of the credit to Mrs. Brennan.

The fact that PHS has a Green Club was certainly a contributing factor, but the school also has water bottle filling stations (as do other Portsmouth schools), and offers courses on environmental science, renewable energy and oceanography. 

“Just those sustainable-type ventures all built up together and gave us enough to get that distinction,” he said, adding that the award is also good PR for the district and hopefully opens more eyes to the importance of green practices.

“That’s what we need — more of the community to buy into this whole sustainable future.”

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