In May, the U.S. Department of Education honored 58 schools across the country as Green Ribbon Schools. The award recognizes schools, districts, and institutions of higher education that reduce environmental impact and costs; improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and provide environmental education. This year Southside Occupational Academy High School (SOA),  a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) vocational school of 270 special needs students between the ages of 16-22 in the West Englewood community, received the award.

Seven Generations Ahead (SGA) congratulates SOA, knowing first-hand how committed SOA is to empowering students to make a positive environmental impact and improve their overall health and wellness.

SGA has worked with SOA since 2014 when the school joined the CPS Commercial Composting and Recycling Program. With this program, schools reduce their cafeteria and kitchen landfill waste by roughly 85 percent through sorting, commercial composting and recycling. As one of the first schools in the program, SOA has been a shining example of engagement and enthusiasm for reducing waste and caring for the environment.

Respect for the environment is thoroughly integrated throughout the curriculum and the ethos at SOA. As explained in “Green Ribbon Schools: Highlights from the 2018 Honorees,” students start each morning by reciting the school motto, “We respect ourselves. We respect others. We respect the environment.” According to SOA, “regardless of their disability, the student body exhibits care and concern for their environment in their everyday activities, such as following the recycling and compost system or minimizing their water usage.”

SOA offers a wide range of vocational courses that prepare students to transition to jobs, teach independent living skills, and build confidence. SOA’s mission is “to foster a safe and supportive environment for all students to participate in individualized transition education, capitalizing on students’ interest and strengths while preparing them to become contributing members of their community.”

SOA teacher, Catriona Aird, says the composting program has been beneficial to students, and “they have taken ownership of the lunchroom recycling and composting duties and look forward to their assigned work days. Each group has a manager and specific procedures they have to follow, teaching them vocational skills as well as addressing some of the academic-based competencies directly related to the class.”

SOA student worker Kenneth Chapple (in blue) on the job at the Field Museum, with (from left to right) SGA’s Susan Casey, SOA teacher Tracy Navarro, and Carter O’Brien and Ed Schweitzer of the Field Museum

SOA also has a supervised work training program that gives students job training at employers such as the Field Museum, Navy Pier and the University of Chicago. As SGA observed on a recent visit to the Field Museum’s cafeteria recycling and composting station, SOA student workers apply the sorting skills they learn in their own school cafeteria in their job at the museum.

In addition to working with the commercial composting program, SOA students manage native perennial and vegetable gardens, rain gardens, rain barrels, and an onsite compost bin for composting landscape trimmings as part of their horticulture course. Students in the custodial course use green cleaners, and the carpentry lab students built honey bee hives. Students also manage a poultry coop that produces over a dozen eggs per day, which are used by the culinary class or sold in their farmer’s market. SOA also emphasizes student health and well-being by teaching meditation, using the PE class to practice for the Special Olympics, and teaching students how to maintain and promote their physical, mental, and social health. 

Among the 58 national winners, three additional Illinois schools were honored this year: Monroe Elementary School in Hinsdale, Wolcott School in Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Read more about the Green Ribbon award as well as the inspiring stories of all 58 schools honored this year, in the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools: Highlights from the 2018 Honorees.

Seven Generations Ahead congratulates Southside Occupational Academy High School and all the Green Ribbon honorees on their successes and achievements. Way to go!

SOA’s greenhouse. Photo courtesy of the SOA website.