It began with a simple bluebird house Gina Felter built on the North Carroll High School campus in her first year as assistant principal at the school.
On April 22, Felter and the rest of the Panther community learned their environmental awareness had been recognized by Department Secretary Arne Duncan as one of only two schools in Maryland to receive the U.S. Department of Education's 2014 Green Ribbon Schools (GRS) Awards.
"It's an awesome honor," said Kim Dolch, the principal at North Carroll for eight years.
Dolch was quick to credit Felter, now in her third year at the school after stints as a science teacher at Sykesville Middle School, the Carroll County Outdoor School and most recently Francis Scott Key High School, for leading the effort.
Dolch noted that while the school staff's actions were important over the past two years, "the kids were the heart and soul of it."
The federal recognition, which only 48 schools in the country received, "recognized schools that save energy, reduce costs, feature environmentally sustainable learning spaces, protect health, foster wellness, and offer environmental education to boost academic achievement and community engagement," according to a release from the Maryland Department of Education.
The drive for Green Ribbon School recognition began in earnest after North Carroll was named a Maryland Green School last year, according to Felter.
"Of all the staff I have worked with, this is the most successful. The staff here is terrific. The students here are terrific," Felter said.
"Being green is not just good for the planet. It's good for behavior. It's good educational practice," she said.
"I'm very passionate about being active when it comes to the environment, to protecting the environment, " said Felter, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in wildlife management/pre-veterinary science from Virginia Tech.
Her simple act of putting a birdhouse on campus to supply shelter for bluebirds sparked an interest in six students, then juniors, to start a Green Team at the school.
"They said they wanted to increase recycling. It started with paper. Increased to cans and bottles. And it wasn't just putting out receptacles, but education too," she said, referring to the students' efforts to raise awareness about taking actions to protect the environment.
"Once the ball started rolling, once they learned one thing, they wanted to learn something else," she said.
Most encouraging to her, she said, was that the students put what they learned into practice.
"It's actions the students do every day — recycling all those papers, composting food in the cafeteria. It takes a little bit of extra effort in terms of education. But the staff and the community here are so receptive to it," she said. "Everybody does their own little piece."
The school has Turn It Off Tuesday every week, during which there is a special effort to turn lights off in rooms after the last person has left and be sure faucets are turned off when no one is at a sink.
"We were built in 1976, so ours is a little tougher," said Dolch on the challenges the North Carroll community faced in a school that does not have the heating, air conditioning and insulation of newer buildings constructed with a greater emphasis on being green.
"We have an older building," Felter said. "But it's not about the building itself. It's about what's inside of it. It's about what the people do inside that building.
"You're starting to see a shift," she said. "Before, most people wanted to do things to help the planet. Now, most people know they have to do something."
In addition to North Carroll, Travilah Elementary School in Montgomery County was also named a Green Ribbon School this year during an Earth Day announcement in Washington, D.C.