Earlier this year, staff and students at École Secondaire Lacombe Composite High School (ESLCHS) learned that - through its EcoVision program - the school had made the shortlist for the Top 10 World’s Best Schools for Environmental Action.
And just this month, they received word that although they didn’t land in the top three, they are indeed the only school in North America to make the top 10 list cut.
The World’s Best School Prizes was launched this year by T4 Education in partnership with Canada-based global software company D2L, Accenture and American Express.
“It’s been a 17-year journey that has gotten us here,” said teacher Steve Schultz.
“It started with a student hearing me say, ‘Words without actions are meaningless.’ She took that to heart, and she wanted to take our school off the grid. I gave her the challenge to find a group of friends, a group of like-minded people, a vision statement and a plan.
“A week later, she came to me and she had all of that put together which meant that she was pretty serious.”
“Then 2010 rolled around, we flipped the switch and we had a six kW solar system put in - the second school in Alberta to do that.”
Three weeks later, a fire destroyed the newly-installed solar system. “My students were just shattered. And that day also changed my life forever,” he said.
“I discovered what my true passion was, and that I had to find a way to provide hope for these students. So ‘out of the ashes we will rise’ became our new theme. We also discovered that spider plants clean the air, so we gave every teacher one, and that really helped to improve the psychological environment of our school as well as the physical environment,” he explained.
“Since we saw that those plants provided so much hope, we wanted to build a greenhouse. So three years later and after tonnes and tonnes of research, we became the first school in Canada to build a near net-zero geodesic tropical greenhouse.”
Next up, they grew a food forest on a two-acre patch that had been pretty much covered in weeds.
“We now have the largest food forest in Alberta at any school.”
It wasn’t long after that the bee project was launched.
“We won numerous awards for that, becoming the first school in Canada to offer bee-keeping for credits,” he said.
“That put us on the agricultural map but also on the animal conservation map, because we also built a solitary bee hotel for our solitary bees, along with six pollinator gardens.”
A while later, they noticed there were weeds growing around the gardens, so they brought in some goats to help tackle that problem.
And more recently, the tragedy of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children was discovered in areas across the nation.
“We wanted to do something for our Indigenous people but we wanted to follow our themes which are that it has to enhance education, it has to improve the environment and it has to improve the community,” he said.
They soon collaborated with the Maskwacis First Nation and other prominent Indigenous leaders and came up with Educational Pollinator Indigenous Carbon Capture (EPICC) Garden, which has introduced 25 Indigenous species. “These have incredible value for the Indigenous people because they provide medicinal, edible and pollinator properties,” he said.
These days, Schultz and his dedicated team are focused on food security and transportation projects.
“The reason we won this award, I think, is that 100 percent of these projects are student-driven from beginning to end,” he said. “I think the reasons our students are successful is that they have tenacity, grit and determination. They care, and they are so passionate about what they do.”
Schultz added that the team also enjoys sharing what they’ve learned over the years, too.
“Our mandate all along, all through these fantastic projects, is always to pass it on,” he said. “The most important thing to me is that other schools, internationally, are going to be adapting some of our principles and ideas into their own schools. I am so proud of my students.
“I also feel very, very grateful. I feel very proud of my students and of our community.”
Schultz also had the opportunity to talk about the prestigious award during the second annual Innovation Xchange student conference in Lacombe this week.
The event was hosted by the Red Deer-based Ten Peaks Innovation Alliance.
Schultz has been teaching high school science, chemistry, forensics, electronics, and most recently agriculture at École Secondaire Lacombe Composite High School since 1997.