Amanda Ferguson played a critical role in helping Arbor Ridge K-8 School secure a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School designation. 

Amanda Ferguson smiles in front of a garden.

The U.S. Department of Education recently recognized a local K-8 school for its initiatives in making the campus environmentally friendly — and one UCF doctoral student helped pave the way.

Amanda Ferguson, a teacher at Arbor Ridge K-8 School, founded and leads an extracurricular group for students called Club SERVE, which stands for “Students Engaged in Recycling, Volunteering and the Environment.”

Ferguson, who will enter her second year of the curriculum and instruction doctoral program in the fall, has tasked her Club SERVE students with working to achieve a green status sustainability program for six years now. Students from second to eighth grades help make the school “green” through engaging in projects like composting, water conservation, and tending to the school’s butterfly garden, wildflower garden, vegetable garden, bat houses and beehives.

All of these efforts have not gone unnoticed. Arbor Ridge has been deemed a “school of excellence” by Orange County Public Schools’ Green School Recognition program for the last three years. This year, the school took first prize, winning $5,000 that can go back into their environmental efforts.

Being recognized by OCPS also led Ferguson and Arbor Ridge to be nominated by the district for the Florida Green Apple Award — another recognition bestowed by the Florida Department of Education that also allowed them to be nominated for the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Award. This distinction was only awarded to 26 schools in the nation. Ferguson and other administrators and teachers from Arbor Ridge will be honored in Washington, D.C., in August.

“It’s a distinction you can only get once, so once we have been named a USDOE Green Ribbon School, we will maintain that title, and our position changes within the district,” Ferguson says. “Moving forward, we basically take on a mentor role. It’s now our job to find a way to mentor other schools so that more schools can apply for these programs, learn from us and go from there, which is fun.”

All of this experience will also help Ferguson in her pursuit of her doctorate at UCF.

"It's really neat because I'm working all of this into my dissertation research,” she says.

In one of her classes this past spring, Ferguson did a mini gap analysis on science scores to see if there was a correlation between schools that have excellent green programs and their science scores. She hasn’t focused her dissertation yet but knows that she wants it to involve sustainability.

Arbor Ridge teachers also worked with UCF’s Department of Biology, accompanying Pegasus Professor Linda Walters to the Indian River Lagoon to pick up baby mangroves to create a mangrove nursery on campus.

“The second-graders tended to them all year,” Ferguson says. “The department just picked up all of the mangroves, and they're going to take them back to the Indian River Lagoon and plant them to help with coastal restoration."

Ferguson and Club SERVE have also inspired students to become more interested in sustainability on their own volition.

“They love it, and what's fun is when they come to me with ideas, so now it's turning into a student-led program,” Ferguson says. "They ask things like, ‘‘Can we take out the grabbers today at recess and pick up all the trash by the bus loop?’ That's what I want to hear. It's just becoming natural that they're the ones that are suggesting all of this stuff — even parents too.”

Through all of the unique ideas and projects Ferguson has developed at Arbor Ridge, she says her school's administration has been incredibly supportive.

"We are very blessed to have an administration that will be flexible and let us do what we want to do,” she says. “Any school that wants to get going with green cannot expect to have a super successful program right off the bat. It’s all about getting people on board. It’s taken us six years, and every year, we get more and more help with it.”

The idea of Club SERVE was inspired by Ferguson’s experience with a service-learning club at the first school she taught at, Moss Park Elementary.

“We only have about 100 kids per grade level, and this year, we had over 40 apply to be in Club SERVE,” Ferguson says. "I have a good team of teachers who help me out with the club. I think the first year we did Club SERVE, we maybe had 12 students involved. Every year it grows bigger and bigger, and that just makes my heart happy because you see all these kids who want to do good for our environment and for our Earth. That’s the way it should be, in my eyes.”