03/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NYC Public School Students Participate in the Green Cup Challenge

Actor Matthew Modine, well-known environmental activist and founder of, spoke at Brooklyn's PS442 last Wednesday. His mission? To help inspire a group of middle school students who were about to be part of a remarkable green initiative.

"I feel very strongly about empowering individuals to make measurable, tangible difference to our community, our environment, and our personal health," said Modine, who turned off the overhead light and spoke to kids by the light of the afternoon sun. "My dad taught me if you really care about something you try to find a solution."

That's exactly what the New York City Department of Education and the Green School Alliance are trying to do.

That same day, New York City Department of Education Division of School Facilities CEO John Shea and Deputy Director of the Mayor's Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability Adam Freed urged students to reduce their total energy consumption by participating in the Green Cup Challenge, an annual, student-led event that supports efforts to measure and reduce school-based electricity use. The Green Cup Challenge is sponsored by the national non-profit group, the Green Schools Alliance, which the Department of Education (DOE) joined last spring.

This is a big deal for the environment and a bold step for New York -- the first major city in which the entire public school system (that's 1,500 NYC public schools; 1.1 million students) has committed to measuring and reducing their energy consumption and carbon footprint.

To put the scope of this into even better perspective: New York public schools account for approximately 25% of the city's municipal energy bill!

The Green Cup Challenge is an annual, month-long event starting in which participating schools from across the U.S. work together to reduce their carbon footprint. To date, a total of 109 public and private schools in 22 states have signed on, with more expected. The GCC is a fun "energy scavenger hunt" that raises community awareness while helping schools make measurable change.

During the first and only national student-driven interschool energy challenge in 2009, 120 schools in 24 states reduced their aggregated carbon emissions by 2.5 million pounds -- the equivalent of taking 220 cars off the road for one whole year. Top performing schools have achieved 18% energy reductions, saving thousands of dollars in utility costs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. PS166, one of the first of the NY Public Schools to enroll in the GCC, has been covered by several blogs already, and a webinar was created to guide schools through the process.

The Green Schools Alliance launched in New York City in October 2007 and they have emerged as the most cohesive (by far) vision for fighting climate change. Through the existing network of school associations -- many of whose Presidents are GSA Founding Board Members -- GSA programs are successfully being replicated in school communities nationwide. GSA Chapters have been launched across the country, creating a growing national footprint, and a new voice for the K-12 sector.

The power behind this idea is clear: It's schools guiding schools to implement sustainable, energy-smart solutions, without government assistance, because our students are the one demographic that wants to change, and schools are fertile ground to grow this movement.

In the U.S., 80 million people go to school every day. The GSA, having evolved from within the school community, is uniquely positioned to impact the hearts and minds, and the behavior and practices, of an enormous number. Through family and friends, green building and sustainability education programs implemented in our K-12 school communities will reach an even greater audience outside the school -- in homes and workplaces. And environmental science curriculums will be more readily shared between schools in this environment.

I can't think of a reason why a school would not wish to join this movement, though I'm sure some FOX commentator would knock it.

As Stephen del Percio so eloquently put it:

"...joining the Green Schools Alliance reflects a commitment to a benign sort of indoctrination. The sort that you'd think everyone could agree with, actually: the sort that teaches kids not to rely on government actors to create green efficiencies, but which instead encourages a devolution of those shared responsibilities across a wider community. "

Let's hope that, with NYC Public schools (all 1500 of them) leading the charge, more schools jump on board.

For more about the Green Schools Alliance, watch this inspiring short video.

Photo courtesy Green School Alliance