Fourth graders Saba Getahun (left) and Keyli Castro discuss solutions to environmental problems as part of a science assignment at William Tyler Page Elementary School in Silver Spring. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Each morning, 10-year-old Tuyet Le gets ready for her day with the lights off. By choice.

“Many people can turn on the lights and then they’re not helping the Earth,” said Tuyet, a student at William Tyler Page Elementary School in Silver Spring. “So it’s better to turn off more.”

Tuyet has been passionate about helping the Earth since — she pauses, mulling — she was 7 or 8 and joined her school’s green team as an environmental ambassador in classrooms and at home. Learning about the environment at school sparked her passion. 

“I use less water when I’m brushing my teeth and then my lights are off when I’m changing, so I can save electricity,” she said. “At the end of the day, I always turn off my iPad before I go to bed,” and she’s sparing with shower water.

These fourth graders work together in teams on a issue related to the environment. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The state’s push for green schools was highlighted in a recent Chesapeake Bay Program report, which said that in 2015, more than 80 percent of the certified sustainable schools in the improving watershed were in Maryland.

School programs in the watershed that adopt sustainable practices and teach students to be environmentally literate are helping save the bay and ensuring it remains well, said Tom Ackerman, vice president of education with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Education, he said, is the “best really long-term solution for protecting the health of our environment.” 

Students at Page Elementary are a portion of the roughly 2.7 million students in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and other areas, including Virginia and the District, also have taken steps to certify green schools and incorporate environmental literacy into curriculums, Ackerman said. 

Given schools’ physical sizes, campuses are bound to affect their surrounding environments. Data from about 120 schools in the Maryland Green Schools program show that sustainability efforts conserved more than 700,000 gallons of water and caused a drop of nearly 7 million kilowatt-hours from 2015 to 2017.

Yet a school’s physical impact is “dwarfed” by its potential to create environmental stewards, who may go on to tackle environmental challenges or at least make eco-friendly decisions, Ackerman said. 

“It’s preparing kids for the 21st-century economy and the 21st-century citizenry,” he said.

The activity and noise in one of Carlette Jameson’s Wednesday morning science classes at Page rival a sporting event’s. Jameson’s voice pierces the din: “You have less than a minute.”

Visible panic flits across the faces of fourth-graders clustered in groups around the classroom, their construction paper rustling. Armed with markers, they frantically finish an assignment that would challenge many college-educated adults: identify and offer a solution to environmental problems in the Chesapeake Bay — in 15 minutes. 

“I like it because we can talk about it and we can solve our own problems kind of like real scientists,” said Tuyet, whose group recognized that runoff containing fertilizer was causing harmful oxygen-sucking algae blooms in the bay. 

Sophia Carey, another student, said her group wanted to decrease the amount of snow salt and chemicals used because they cause water pollution. 

Their solution is an underwater vacuum to suck up and clean toxic water. It seems flawless, but then Jameson asks what they would do with the residual chemicals. 

It would go to a landfill, somebody suggests.

“So then that goes to another type of pollution. What is that?” Jameson asks. 

“Air pollution,” the students say as a chorus.

As the period drew to a close, no group had come up with a solid solution, and the room once again filled with overlapping voices engaged in spirited debate. 

“This is a working thing,” Jameson told her class. “There’s no definite ‘This is what’s going to happen, this is what I’m going to do.’ You all are starting to create, starting to actually realize certain things.” 

The goal is to get students to think critically, Jameson said. 

“I didn’t really know what things could pollute water and air, but then I learned more things than I thought could do it,” Sophia said.

Students have also developed an understanding of the effect of their actions, leading them to eco-friendly habits, said Michele Dean, the school’s green team leader and a pre-kindergarten teacher.

When lunch wraps up, students bring their trays in a steady stream to the center of the cafeteria where different colored receptacles are located. Without hesi­ta­tion, they separate food remnants, cardboard trays and plastic containers. Leftover water is poured into buckets to be repurposed.

“Very rarely do we have to remind them,” said Dean, who has led the green team at Page for more than 10 years. “They just know that we have to recycle at lunch.” Before the school installed hand dryers, they knew to use one — just one — paper towel. “It’s a natural thing here,” she said.

Sophie Hofherr, a first-grader and green team member, said she recycles every day. If people don’t take care of the environment, the consequences would be dire, the 6-year-old said. 

“If you litter and you don’t recycle . . . the Earth will get all dirty and then if people stop taking trash and putting it away,” Sophie said, “the Earth will just fall apart and it will be all garbage.”

‘Powerful role in shaping the future’

Maryland’s “long history” of emphasizing environmental education has contributed to the proliferation of green schools, said Laura Collard, executive director of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, an organization responsible for recognizing green schools within the state. 

Page Elementary is one of 585 schools awarded Maryland Green Schools status. The school also received a 2017 U.S. Education Department Green Ribbon Schools award.

With 125 schools receiving new or continuing green school status last year, green schools now make up more than 25 percent of all public and independent schools in Maryland, Collard said.

She expects the number to grow this year, as about 190 schools have filed an intent to apply for the designation.

“There has been a building of support and interest,” she said.

Environmental education standards, she said, had been in place before 2011 when the state’s Board of Education approved regulations that required all students, beginning as young as preschool, to complete a comprehensive environmental literacy program before graduation. 

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which seeks to restore the bay, was signed in 2014, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) established Project Green Classrooms in June 2017, signing an executive order that renewed the state’s commitment to teach students about the outdoors and environmental issues. 

As a result, students are not just “sitting and listening” to teachers anymore. They are also taking an active role in their classes, said Britt Slattery, director of the Center for Conservation Education and Stewardship with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“They have a remarkable ability to comprehend these vigorous concepts when they’re actively engaged in their learning,” said Slattery, who also is a co-coordinator of Project Green Classrooms. “They’re able to see that they have a powerful role in shaping the future of their world, so they are much more interested in the learning.” 

Maryland is not alone.

Virginia, for example, in 2015 hosted 17 percent of certified sustainable schools in the watershed that reaches up the seaboard and has had environmental standards in place since the late 1980s, said Anne Petersen, the Virginia Department of Education’s science coordinator.

Last year, Petersen said, two schools and two school divisions received federal Green Ribbon awards, and more than 70 schools were also recognized by the Virginia Naturally Schools program, which certifies green schools. 

“We’re all looking for the same end product; for students to grow up to be responsible stewards and responsible citizens,” said Suzie Gilley, chairwoman of Virginia Naturally Schools. 

Virginia is in the middle of revising its education standards, including changes to environmental literacy elements for the standards to maintain their “robustness,” Petersen said. 

The department also created a high school environmental course, which will be available for students to take starting next school year, Petersen said, with the goal of making environmental education accessible to all high school students, not just those interested in Advanced Placement courses. 

Ann Carey of Silver Spring said her daughter, Sophia, who has been on Page Elementary’s green team since the first grade, is forever reminding her to do the little things that can help the environment. 

Sophia’s latest mission is to make sure everyone is recycling, Carey said. 

“At our family’s house, if it’s not in the recyclables container, she’ll go through the trash and get it,” she said. “ ‘Everybody has to do their part’ is what she’s showing us.”