June 13, 2014

St. Thomas Aquinas honored as national ‘Green Ribbon School’

Several members of the Earth Council at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis pose for a photo in a garden at the school, which was named a 2014 “Green Ribbon School” by the U.S. Department of Education. Reese Sochacki, left, Maisie McMahon, Maggie Gonzalez and Hank Fleetwood helped plant flowers in the garden. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Several members of the Earth Council at St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis pose for a photo in a garden at the school, which was named a 2014 “Green Ribbon School” by the U.S. Department of Education. Reese Sochacki, left, Maisie McMahon, Maggie Gonzalez and Hank Fleetwood helped plant flowers in the garden. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

As Sharon Horvath walks through the school garden marked with bird feeders and plants that provide food for butterflies, the science teacher feels a natural pride that St. Thomas Aquinas School in Indianapolis has been named a 2014 “Green Ribbon School” by the U.S. Department of Education—the only Catholic school in Indiana to earn that environmentally-friendly recognition.

Yet as much as she is proud, Horvath also views St. Thomas’ environmental success story as a faith-based model that could readily be used by other Catholic schools in the archdiocese and across the country.

“We see it as an affirmation of the work we are doing here, and an encouragement to other schools to do what we do,” says Horvath, who is also the environmental education coordinator at the school that is home to 214 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. “They’re things that most of the students can participate in—recycling, composting, walking to school, helping in the garden.

“What makes us different is that we frame it from social justice and care for creation. It’s not just saving money. It’s part of our faith. We’re called to take care of what we’ve been given.”

The parish school strives toward that goal with an approach that is as varied and colorful as the plants and flowers in the school garden that has been designed as a habitat for birds and butterflies.

Part of the approach includes planting 27 milkweed plants that will serve as larvae food for monarch butterflies.

It also includes efforts to cut down on parents driving their children to school by encouraging students to walk or bike to school as part of the Safe Routes to School program.

“It’s affectionately known as ‘the walking school bus,’ ” says Cara Swinefurth, the school’s principal. “We run five to six routes every day. We have parent volunteers who sign up for each day, and they walk with the kids along those routes.”

Horvath shares another benefit of the program: “There’s a lot of data that connects creativity and walking. It gets the blood flowing.”

In keeping with the parish’s Creation Care ministry, St. Thomas Aquinas School has also worked to reduce its environmental impact by installing new windows, low-flow toilets and sustainable flooring.

Recycling and composting have also been conscious choices, helping to divert about 30 percent of the school’s solid waste from landfills.

“It’s all about choices and how they impact other people—how we treat each other, how we treat the environment,” Swinefurth says. “We’re all connected.”

Those connections are also stressed in the school’s focus on the health of its students and staff. While teachers are encouraged to use pedometers to track their steps and their fitness, students stay active through recess, sports, physical education classes and less traditional activities including karate and flamenco dancing.

“We’re trying to provide opportunities for children that develop their whole person,” Swinefurth says.

St. Thomas Aquinas School is one of four Catholic schools in the country to receive the 2014 Green Ribbon award. It’s the second honor that the school has received from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2005, the school earned status as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence for its academics.

Beyond the Green Ribbon award, Horvath views the school’s and the parish’s focus on the environment as the true reason to celebrate.

“I see it as an awareness of the world we live in, and just appreciating what’s before you and around you,” she says. “If you appreciate it, you want to take care of it.” †

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