U.S. Department of Education pays visit to Athens Drive

Representatives from Washington pay visit to the Drive on Green Strides tour following its recognition as a Green Ribbon school.


Photos by Zoe Politis

Athens’ marching band prepares to welcome visitors from the US Department of Education. They were lead from the band’s display to the school’s outdoor classroom.

October 19– A band of National Honors Society students looked on as the Athens’ Drive marching band stood with as much poise as they could muster. The NHS students huddled in anticipation, discussing the arrival of a group of esteemed guests minutes away from arriving at Athens. Today was special. However, few students outside these groups knew that on this day, visitors all the way from Washington D.C. were flying in to recognize a special group of schools, a group that we belonged to. 

“It’s a big deal and a great opportunity just to show the work that has been going into Athens and I think that’s really important to get that out,” said Ryan Markley, senior NHS Member. 

The United States Department of Education (DOE) flew in from Washington D.C. exchanging the alcoves of the White House for the orange and blue halls that our students walk every day. The visit was in recognition of the green ribbon award, indicating that our school showed exemplary standards of environmental education, sustainability and wellness. 

For the Jaguars that live their day-to-day lives here at The Drive, this recognition may seem surprising. A simple question has been wandering through our halls and in-and-out of our classrooms: why us? 

We were based on the idea of an academic community that transcends differences real or imagined.”

— Tonya Hinton

“We were based on the idea of an academic community that transcends differences real or imagined. It’s community and the fact that you don’t see it in other high schools that have been recently produced, you don’t see the kind of gardens and exterior pieces and uniqueness [specific] to our school,” said Tonya Hinton, Magnet Coordinator.

Since Athens’s achievements have been normalized to the student body, it is easy, as a student, to overlook the lengths our school has gone through to earn such outstanding recognition. As a member of the DOE, who has only just been introduced to Athens, it is easy to see how our school has gone above and beyond to meet the standards of the Green Strides effort.

They honored Athens Drive with the Green Ribbon Award. The green ribbon award is afforded to schools that go above and beyond in reducing environmental impacts and costs, improving the health and wellness of staff and students, and providing effective environmental and sustainability recognition. Here at Athens, every single student has contributed to a school that, without fail, met the requirements recognized nationally by the DOE.

Since the founding of Athens Drive in 1978, Athens’ methods of education have stood out from the rest. Tonya Hinton, Magnet Coordinator, says, “We were…the first truly integrated High School in Wake County… that is a true community school where we had the preschool here, it’s like womb-to-tomb education.” 

From April Jones’ Advanced Placement Environmental Science classroom to the animals in our very own backyard, Athens Drives’ staff and students exceed expectations. The visitors traveled through the following series of exhibits displaying Athens’ footprints of environmental education.


Exhibit 1) April Jones’s AP Environmental Science Class

The first visit on group 1’s route through the environmental achievements of the school started in April Jones’s AP Environmental Science classroom, where students Eric Lara-Rodriguez, Eli Sheppard, and Zoee Stewart displayed to the visitors a project familiar to many Athens students: Biodomes. 

“After high school, you could go in a career path that could be helpful to this but more importantly little things like composting recycling you could learn about the impacts of that long term because little things like that can help…the population…and we have to make a difference whether its a big step or a small step,” said Stewart, when asked about the impacts of this project beyond high school.

Exhibit 2) Solar Panels

Visitors were taken to Athens’ famous solar panels for a conversation with a representative from one of the companies who awarded the grants that made the project possible. Read more about the development of the solar panels here.

Exhibit 3) Claire and Rishi’s speech about environmental clubs

Students Claire Siegel and Rishi Rau gave a speech about the variety of clubs Athens offers relating to the environment, including environmental science club, recycling club, recycling Design Club, Hiking and Hammocking Club, and The Science National Honors Society. 

Exhibit 4) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Exhibit

Through the library and out the back doors, Lauren Doran, STEM Academy Coordinator, and Katherine Dean, STEM Academy student board member, were waiting for the visitors in the Athens Drive garden. They stood by their tri-folds, providing a visual for their presentation. They spoke to the visitors about the requirements, pathways, and goals that define the STEM Academy.

“The mission of our academy is to provide students with a linear, collaborative, creative, and authentic educational experience, centered around the theme of energy and sustainability,” said Doran, as the spectators looked on.

Exhibit 5) Yearbook/CTE classrooms

In the designated yearbook classroom, the visitors learned of the many Career and Technical Education courses offered at Athens that relate to sustainability and the successes that those courses have had or are working towards.

Exhibit 6) Animal Science Learning Lab

After walking throughout the school, the tour finally led the visitors to The Drive’s very own backyard. There waiting was Susan Jones, Animal Science teacher, Kayla Lewis, and Jose Garcia, students of the animal science course. Also present were the Athens-owned chickens. As they spoke to the visitors about the course’s purpose and impact, Garcia held one of the chickens in his arms.

“I basically grew up with this chicken,” Garcia said, “from my freshman to senior year.”

The visitors laughed, and Catherine Truitt, DOE board member, questioned “does she recognize you?”

To which Garcia responded, “Um, maybe, I hope so,” earning more laughs from the onlookers.


The recognition is sure to have lasting impacts on not only Athens but the surrounding communities as well. The event gives administrators the opportunity to expose to legislators the true needs of our communities, where funding should go, and facets of education about the reality of such a diverse school. Administrators have a chance to help them see the real needs of our school and the value of environmental education and particularly wellness components, physical and psychological health

“That’s what matters. Not just Athens, it could be throughout the nation. There could be a revolution of what’s needed in schools and how they could support it,” said Tonya Hinton. 

Students in NHS also voiced anticipation about the well-deserved recognition Athens is now receiving on a national level. From exhibits with the Smithsonian magazine to visits from various national organizations, the warmth of Athens’ community and the work of its diligent students are recognized all the way from the top of capitol hill, a success we should all be proud of for every students’ contribution to this long-lasting sense of togetherness.

“It always comes back to community,” Hinton said. “It’s what ties us together.”