“They have a blast, and they learn what it was really like on the Oregon Trail,” said Lindsay Comstock, fifth-grade teacher.

From snowshoeing and canoeing to measuring water erosion and learning about circumference using trees, kids at Jeffers Pond interact with the great outdoors frequently because of their school’s environmental education focus.

And it doesn’t stop there. It’s an emphasis shared by the entire Prior Lake-Savage School District, written into its strategic plan.

Several weeks ago, both the school and the district as a whole were recognized under the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools program. The school was among 64 nationallly, and the district among 14, to be recognized. Eight district representatives will go to Washington, D.C., on June 3 to accept.

This is the second year of the school recognition program and the first that districts were recognized. Both involve a “really complex and involved application” and high standards, said Jeff Ledermann, the Minnesota Department of Education’s environmental and outdoor education coordinator.

“It’s really unusual for a district of that size to make that commitment,” Ledermann said. “They’re including environmental education across subject areas, not just science.”

The awards aren’t centered on curriculum alone. To win, a district must excel in three areas, or pillars, Ledermann said, including energy use, health and wellness and environmental and sustainability education.

The district excelled in energy efficiency and teacher training, in addition to its educational efforts.

“Our goal is to create environmentally literate kids that really understand the impact that their footprint has on the world,” said Superintendent Sue Ann Gruver.

The district’s environmental focus began more than a decade ago with one school and a passionate teacher. The district received a grant to fund two teachers to train staff in environmental education several years ago. In the past five years, they’ve brought it to every school, adding more elements each year.

Five of the district’s 11 buildings are Energy Star buildings, and the district’s efficiency focus has saved $500,000 over four years, Gruver said.

Other efforts have brought locally grown foods into cafeterias and an organic composting partnership with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, she said. The district recycles items that can’t be composted.

Gruver said it’s great to “see the students from a very young age be able to understand what goes in which bucket … They get it.”

Integration is key

At Jeffers Pond, Principal Karoline Warner called the school’s award “a wonderful recognition for all the hard work staff and students have been doing since we opened.”

She believes that what sets the school and district apart is how an appreciation for the environment is integrated into everything they do.

To bring nature into every subject, teachers from each grade level across the district have written environmentally focused lessons for each academic area using state standards, said Comstock. Whenever it fits, teachers can use the plans, many of which involve outdoor activities.

In a world filled with video games, the hands-on aspect of environmental education resonates with students, said Comstock.

“You can go outside, and there’s no right or wrong answer,” said Kay Dicke, another fifth-grade teacher at Jeffers Pond. “The kids are using their senses to learn … and taking ownership of their education, and that’s really important.”

There are also extracurricular activities, like the Junior Naturalists at elementary schools, led by Dicke and Comstock at Jeffers Pond. The club’s third- through fifth-grade members take charge of recycling and meet monthly to work on projects. There are similar organizations at the middle and high schools.

“We’ve had students whose interest in nature started here, and they carried it throughout their educational career,” said Comstock. “The best thing is, they’re developing lifelong habits.”

Efforts to bring science into kids’ daily lives are working, said Gruver. Since 2008, students have scored at least 10 percentage points higher than average on Minnesota’s standardized science test. Last year, 68 percent of the district’s students were proficient.

And there are real-world indicators. Often Warner hears from parents that students encourage their families to recycle and reduce waste at home, she said.

“I know our children leave here knowing how the environment is being impacted by the choices they make each day,” Gruver said.