NOAA Ocean Guardian Schools Continue to Care for Our Blue Planet

By Naomi Pollack

December 2020

In 2009, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries established the NOAA Ocean Guardian School program. Each year, K-12 schools from around the country submit project proposals for funding and participation in the year-long program. Selected schools carry out hands-on school- or community-based stewardship projects that fall under one of the five program pathways: Marine Debris, 6Rs (Rethink/Reduce/Refuse/Reuse/Rot/Recycle), Watershed Restoration, School Garden/Habitat, and Energy & Ocean Health.

kids smiling in a line
With the goal of reducing single-use plastic at their school, North Point High School (Waldorf, MD) Ocean Guardians model their new reusable water bottle slings.

During the 2019-2020 school year, nearly 10,770 students from nine states were engaged in a variety of activities to help protect our one ocean and in doing so, raise awareness about the issues affecting the health of our blue planet. Despite the many challenges that schools faced in the early months of the pandemic, 44 schools from around the country completed the program requirements and were each recognized by NOAA as an Ocean Guardian School.

“Our Ocean Guardian Schools continue to inspire us,” said Naomi Pollack, coordinator of the Ocean Guardian School program. “They make a commitment to the protection and conservation of their local watersheds, the world's ocean, and special ocean areas like national marine sanctuaries. They make a difference in their communities.”

At the end of the school year, Ocean Guardian Lead Teachers submit measurable data from their project activities, which demonstrates their school’s commitment to conservation and shows they make a difference in their communities. For example, students removed over 6,000 pounds of trash from their communities, planted 5,480 perennials and 200 native trees, replaced 2,200 plastic sporks in their cafeterias with reusable flatware, and distributed 1,700 reusable bottles and 1,250 reusable bags. By using reusable bottles at their school hydration stations, 86,800 single-use plastic bottles were kept out of the landfill.

student drawing of octopus
Students at Scotts Valley High School completed nine murals around campus, raising awareness about pollution in their local watershed and the ocean. Photo: Scotts Valley High School
student made poster
Eco-Week poster organized by the Environmentally Concerned Kids (ECK) Club at Foothill Middle School. Photo: Foothill Middle School
two people holding up a banner
Calvin Paleka and Leah Sanchez, team leaders for the freshman teachers at Kapa’a High School, reveal the school's Ocean Guardian banner. Photo: Liz Steiner

Kapa’a High School (Kaua'i, HI) was the only school from Hawaii to receive a 2019 Ocean Guardian School grant, providing funds to support a waste reduction project on the school campus. Kapa’a students set out to improve their recycling program and implement a compost system using food waste from the school cafeteria. Even in these challenging times, they were committed to meeting their project goals. By the end of the school year, students installed 24 recycling bins and diverted 335 pounds of food waste from the landfill. As Liz Steiner, Ocean Guardian School Lead Teacher at Kapa’a High School observed, “Students are getting excited about composting. [They are] beginning to see the benefits for an ahupaua’a [watershed] that continues to be visibly affected by erosion...” In June 2020, after successfully completing its first Ocean Guardian School year, Kapa’a High School was officially recognized by NOAA as an Ocean Guardian School.

For a third year, Ocean Guardian students at Oppe Elementary Magnet Campus of Coastal Studies (Galveston, TX), have worked in their ocean friendly school garden, growing an abundance of vegetables without the use of chemical fertilizers. This year, students watered their plants with the 3,066 liters of water collected in the garden cistern. “The students would get really excited about making connections between what they were learning in their classrooms about ocean guardianship and conservation to our very own school garden,” said Ocean Guardian Lead Teacher Sarah Hopkins.“When second graders were learning about the importance of water smart gardening and preventing watershed pollution by using less chemicals, they immediately made the connection to ‘the way we garden at Oppe.’ This is what it’s all about! They [students] were always so proud to announce that they were conserving so much water using the cistern and it made them much more aware of other ways they could conserve water in their daily lives.”

Three kids cleaning up beach
Students at Sugarloaf School dedicated over 750 hours to marine debris cleanups at local parks. Photo: Sugarloaf School

At Sugarloaf School (Sugarloaf Key, FL), a second year Ocean Guardian School adjacent to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, kindergarten through eighth grade students have taken the lead to reduce single-use plastics across the school campus and implement a school-wide recycling program. At the beginning of the school year no recycling bins were available on campus. By the end of the year, bins were available in each school classroom and middle school students were responsible for teaching other classes how to recycle properly and for collecting data on recycling efforts. Students led a campus-wide "Skip the Straw" campaign and were able to eliminate all plastic straws in the cafeteria serving line. Additionally, the school installed a water bottle refill station in the cafeteria that prevented 7,661 plastic bottles from being used. Students participated in marine debris cleanups at local parks, dedicating over 750 hours to preventing trash from entering our ocean.

At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, Blue Heron Middle School (Port Townsend, WA) earned its fifth Ocean Guardian School banner – making them the first school in the Pacific Northwest to receive Year Five recognition. For five years, middle school students have been studying watersheds and habitat health. Their watershed curriculum includes time in the field when students get down and dirty, digging holes and planting native species to help restore the health of their local watershed, including salmon habitats. “The field trips always end up high on the list of most enjoyable activities of the year,” said Brett Nevin, Blue Heron’s Ocean Guardian Lead Teacher. “By the end of the year, students are really caring and working hard on their plot, naming the plants, taking ownership over each hole and plant, as they recognize how real and tangible this activity is.” By the time their school shut down in March, Blue Heron Ocean Guardians had planted 250 native perennials and trees in an area totaling 15,995 square feet.

On the east coast, J.C. Parks Elementary School (Indian Head, MD) students continued with their 6R project, focusing on reducing single use plastic on their school campus as well as expanding their reusable bag campaign into their community. In addition to making reusable beeswax sandwich wraps, they prevented about 1,000 pounds of plastic bags from entering the landfill. In January 2020, Lead Teacher Deanna Wheeler received a $13,000 grant from The Chesapeake Bay Trust. The additional funds will be used to purchase reusable bags that the students have designed and will give away to community members who agree to this pledge that they wrote: “On my honor, I will start using reusable bags. By reducing the number of one-time use plastic bags that pollute the ocean and our environment, I will make the Earth a better place. I will recycle, pick up trash, and do other good deeds. My goal is to make a better world for all.”

Kid holding a bottle to a refill station
In their ongoing efforts to reduce single-use plastic on their campus, students at Calabasas Elementary School (Watsonville, CA) enjoy filling up their reusable water bottles at their newly-installed hydration station. Photo: Laura Arnow

In the spring of 2020, as schools transitioned to distance learning, Ocean Guardian students found creative ways to carry out their stewardship projects. During their first year in the program, the Environmentally Concerned Kids (ECK) Club at Foothill Middle School (Walnut Creek, CA) organized a virtual “Eco-Challenge/Green Week" during Earth Week (April 2020) and again in May. Using a variety of EdTech platforms, students participated in daily discussions and challenges that focused on related environmental themes. In addition, ECK members hosted an online screening of the documentary movie “Microplastic Madness,” followed by a discussion with leadership from the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

As the Ocean Guardian School program grows, so does its support from NOAA which now includes a partnership with NOAA Fisheries. In the 2020-2021 school year, $137,920 has been awarded to a new group of Ocean Guardian Schools. Students from 60 schools in 12 states are taking time away from their online classrooms to address a variety of environmental issues. You might find them reducing single use plastic at home, planting native plants in their local watersheds, finding ways to reduce their personal carbon footprint, or writing letters to their local newspapers and elected officials about why we all depend on a healthy ocean to survive.

ocean guardian logo

Does your school have what it takes to help protect the ocean for the future? The 2021-2022 application will be available to download from our website by April 1, 2021. Please review Ocean Guardian School Program Guidelines and Requirements for more detailed information about the Ocean Guardian School program before you complete the application.

Naomi Pollack is the Ocean Guardian School program coordinator at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The Ocean Guardian School Program is managed by NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries with funding coordinated by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.