Students at Highlands Elementary School in Edina compost food and biodegradable utensils in the lunchroom and collect paper towels in the bathroom and empty juice boxes and plastic snack bags in the classroom.

Next, staff want to get a wind-power turbine on the roof.

"We really try to teach kids to be green," Principal Peter Hodne said. "We're trying to do things that have a low cost but have a big impact."

Minnesota has so many schools that meet the "green" designation -- 50 by one count -- that it's host to the first-ever national Green Schools conference Monday and Tuesday. Three west-metro-area schools will be highlighted for their green efforts.

"This is the next major trend in education," said Jim McGrath, executive director of the Green Schools National Network. "The schools that are doing this are probably the best-kept secrets in the country."

About 1,000 environmental and corporate leaders, educators and students from across the nation are in Minneapolis to share ideas on how to green schools. After the conference, Minnesota and Wisconsin will be the first to launch state Green Schools groups.

McGrath, a resident of La Crescent, Minn., said they'll connect state leaders and schools to share tips. "We feel that if we want to truly get a national movement ... the real action will happen at the state level."

What local schools are doing

Many local schools are finding small, low-cost ways to make a big difference, such as with providing energy-efficient lighting or energy systems, building community gardens, encouraging kids to walk to school, turning off computers or not idling buses. And, of course, recycling.

At Richfield's Academy of Holy Angels, graduation gowns are decomposable. Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools take part in the popular "Farm to School" program, which serves local food at schools. At Minnetonka's Deephaven Elementary School, worm farms turn snack scraps into compost.

Minnetonka schools also use ultraviolet light to reduce chemicals like chlorine in pools, and there's talk of turning a science lab into a self-power generated room.

McGrath said in an era of slimming budgets, schools can't afford not to at least go "green" with their energy systems. "It's the only large budget area you can decrease the budget without laying off teachers,'' he said. "We need to save money; we need to save resources."

More efforts needed

There's still room for improvement in local schools.

In September, results released from a first-of-its-kind study by Hennepin County, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the city of Minneapolis found that almost 80 percent of waste in six schools in Minneapolis, Minnetonka and Hopkins could be diverted from the trash to recycling or composting.

"It really comes down to people taking 10 seconds to sort something properly," said John Jaimez of the county's environmental services department.

The report recommended that schools educate students and staff on recycling; properly label recycling bins, and use a team to track and improve efforts.

In four years, bins at Edina's Highlands Elementary sort everything from cookie wrappers to compost and have cut daily trash from six barrels to one.

In teacher Michael Seaman's classroom, a banner quoting a Native American proverb sums up their efforts: "We don't inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children."

"We try to live by the saying," he said. "The decisions we make today affect the future."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141