Laguna Beach’s Top of the World Elementary reaches new heights in environmental education

Top of the World Elementary School is, well, on top of the world.

The Laguna Beach campus recently learned that it’s one of only four schools in the entire state to be named “Green Achievers” through California’s Green Ribbon Schools environmental recognition program. 

That’s the highest distinction possible, honoring sites that exemplify efforts to conserve resources while promoting health and environmental literacy. And with it comes a nomination to compete in the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools recognition program.

Principal Michael Conlon and State Superintendent Tom Torlakson
Top of the World Principal Michael Conlon, left, is joined by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson during the 2018 California Green Ribbon Schools recognition ceremony on April 23. The event was held at Top of the World Elementary in Laguna Beach.

“Top of the World Elementary has been providing robust and innovative education for students since its inception 50 years ago,” said Laguna Beach Unified Superintendent Dr. Jason Viloria. “This recognition speaks to our commitment to developing environmentally and socially conscious students by providing opportunities for them to make positive impacts on the local and global community.”

Nestled in the hills of Laguna Beach, Top of the World Elementary was selected to host the 2018 California Green Ribbon Schools recognition ceremony on April 23. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson personally visited the campus to honor more than 30 schools and districts for promoting sustainability and high-quality environmental education.

Of course the list of Green Achievers was even more exclusive, with a membership of just four schools and one district. Joining Top of the World were Jack London Community Day School in Valley Glen, Monterey Road Elementary in Atascadero and Maple Village Waldorf School in Long Beach, along with the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District.

In a statement, Torlakson said Green Ribbon schools are “leading the way in resource conservation, health and wellness, and environmental literacy.” He also stressed the importance of these practices given today’s environmental challenges.

“California won’t reach our smart and ambitious climate goals without the public sector — and especially without public schools — leading the way,” he said. “We need to protect our magnificent and precious natural resources, and learn more about topics such as the causes of global warming and the acidification of the oceans.”

At both the state and national levels, Green Ribbon schools must demonstrate exemplary achievement in three “pillars.” The first aims to reduce environmental impact and costs. The second strives to improve the health and wellness of schools, students and staff. The final pillar provides high-quality environmental education that incorporates science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — as well as civic skills and green career pathways.

In recent years, Top of the World Elementary has been working to integrate sustainability practices on a number of fronts, including campuswide campaigns. These included a coin drive that raised more than $2,000 to help a school in Kenya purchase three dairy cows and a greenhouse, an ocean awareness club that raised thousands of dollars to help clean up local waters and a partnership with Waste Management to improve on-campus recycling.

The school also launched a campaign to divert uneaten, pre-packaged food from trash cans to a collection bin for the Friendship Shelter program and entered into a partnership with Schneider Electric to help implement energy conservation district-wide.

Top of the World’s campus features three onsite gardens used as outdoor classroom spaces, an 18-foot geodesic dome greenhouse and outdoor cooking stations. The school also utilize digital devices and online assignments to save paper, and students use a rooftop system to collect weather data for analysis. During the 2016-17 school year, TOW students spent a combined 10,000 hours learning outdoors.

California is one of 25 states — along with the District of Columbia — expected to nominate schools and districts for federal recognition this year. The U.S. Department of Education is expected to confirm state nominees in May.