A Minnesota high school and a state education official have received national recognition for their work in reducing schools’ environmental impact and expanding sustainability programs.

Forest Lake High School is one of 35 schools, 14 districts and four colleges and universities across the country this year recognized through the 2019 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program. John Olson, a science content specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education, is the sole recipient of the program’s Director’s Award — given to the state education official “who does the most to advance sustainable education in his or her state.”

In a news release, the U.S. Department of Education said schools and districts were selected based on their efforts in three areas: “reducing environmental impact and utility costs, improving health and wellness, and ensuring effective sustainability education.”

Forest Lake High School Principal Jim Caldwell said he was happy to see his students and teacher Devon Vojtech, who advises the school’s environmental club, recognized for their work on projects that have helped limit the building’s environmental footprint. The club has helped with solar projects on the school roof, built pollinator gardens designed to encourage the growth of native plants and helped with water reuse programs around the campus. Students also collected and recycled hundreds of pounds of holiday lights from around the community.

Vojtech said making those efforts visible and incorporating some of them into classroom lessons is shaping the way students think about their environmental impact.

“One of the things that I recognize being in the classroom and teaching the students is that they truly care about the environment and the choices they are making,” she said.

Olson, a longtime science teacher who now steers the state’s efforts on science instruction and curriculum, said projects like those in Forest Lake can also provide a window into post-high school opportunities for students.

“On a larger scale, this is part of doing our part to sustain the planet and develop the next generation,” he said. “The other aspect is for students, who are maybe preparing for ‘green’ kind of careers, and making them aware of [opportunities].”

At many Minnesota schools, he said, students, teachers and other staff members are working together to make school campuses more sustainable. Mary Cathryn Ricker, the state’s education commissioner, said that’s in part because of Olson’s work.

“John Olson has truly gone above and beyond helping Minnesota schools advance sustainable education in our classrooms and communities,” she said. “Minnesota is very lucky to have a public servant like John, I am proud to call him a colleague, and all of us at [the Department of Education] congratulate him on this well-deserved honor.”

Winners are invited to an award ceremony in Washington, D.C., this fall. Vojtech said her students are looking for funding so that some can attend the event on behalf of Forest Lake High School.