A Small School With a Big Message About Green Cleaning

March 10, 2014 | Written By:

For one progressive school in New Jersey, green cleaning is an exercise in student engagement

At The Willow School, there’s nothing complicated about keeping bathrooms green and clean. The school’s rule for cleaning products: If a fifth grader can’t pronounce it, the school won’t use it.


We're happy to announce that The Willow School has received an Honorable Mention in the K-12 division of the 2013 Green Cleaning Award. For this unique school in Gladstone, N.J., sustainability is not only an essential building policy, it's also a fundamental aspect of the students' education. The Willow School serves 145 preschool through eighth grade students in a co-educational setting with 40,000 square feet of building space on 34 picturesque acres. With a progressive food policy, integrative gardening program, and building underway on a new schoolhouse based on the rigorous “Building for Life” design challenge, it's no wonder The Willow School has been recognized as having an innovative green cleaning program.

Some exciting innovations include :

Can a Fifth Grader Pronounce It?

The most refreshing thing about The Willow School's green cleaning program is how it engages its students. In developing a green cleaning purchasing manual, those in charge wanted to make intentional decisions about what to buy and get to the bottom of their true motivations. Casey Cullen, the school's sustainability coordinator, said, “We started asking ourselves, 'What makes this the best? Is it because there's a leaf on the bottle or are we looking at it holistically?'” The best judges turned out to be students themselves. A panel of fifth through eighth grade students were invited to discuss their opinions on cleaning products. Their concerns were simple, but impactful. Above all, they were interested in making sure they could read, pronounce and recognize each ingredient. The school made ingredient lists a priority in their purchasing manual. Natural cleaners, like those based on water, oxygen or hydrogen peroxide, are preferred. In addition the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for each product is required to list 100 percent of ingredients.

Pizza Buddies Reduce Waste

The Willow School has an ambitious zero-waste goal. The third graders are responsible for weighing all food composted at lunch every day. Through this responsibility, they've been able to not only learn valuable lessons about sustainability, but also contribute to the school's own sustainability program. For example, they started to notice that there was more waste on Fridays than any other day. It turns out that Friday is pizza day at The Willow School and the extra waste could be attributed to younger kids not eating their pizza crusts. The third graders devised a “pizza-buddy” system where the younger students shared their pizza with designated (crust-loving) partners, and the amount of waste was reduced.

Keeping an Open Mind

The Willow School is constantly looking forward, seeking ways to improve its green cleaning program and sustainability in general. Speaking to the school's openness to new ideas, Cullen was excited about the GCA honorable mention, but he was even more excited to learn from the other winners. “We are definitely looking forward to modeling our program after the [GCA] winners and learning from what they did,” she said. When it comes to green cleaning, The Willow School has so much to teach other schools—namely that openness to new ideas (even if those ideas are from third graders) leads to success.


Green Cleaning Award winners demonstrate best green cleaning practices, involving their school communities in the process. The annual award, presented by American School & University magazine, Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) and the Green Cleaning Network, recognizes schools with environmentally minded programs and the ability to galvanize the community around green cleaning. Winners are judged based on the five simple steps to green cleaning outlined in HSC's Quick + Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools.

Congratulations to The Willow School! Read about all our 2013 Green Cleaning Award winners here. 

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