On Aug. 13, Sustainable Jersey for Schools awarded Bear Tavern, Hopewell Elementary, Timberlane, and Central High School with Bronze Level certification. Sustainable Jersey certification not only recognized the Hopewell Valley Regional School District’s long-term commitment to sustainability, but also provided our district the opportunity to model the process and behavior we seek from our students.

Previously we applied but failed to receive Sustainable Jersey certification for any of our schools. The experience was frustrating since we had no question that all of our schools met the requirements and were deserving.

Like a student who has mastered all labs and aced all homework but choked on the exam, we had the expertise, but did not demonstrate our skills in the manner that those judging desired to see it in order to measure and demonstrate success. Fortunately, Sustainable Jersey offered a second chance—a redo—and permitted reapplication. If something is important, try again. Pride and external rewards often follow setbacks.

Students face similar experiences. For example, outside of the HVRSD walls, a student may take and fail a driver’s test. Yet, passing on the second try still results in a driver’s license. Students taking the SAT or ACT exams for college entrance are assessed using their highest scores, often taking the exams multiple times to practice and improve.

After graduation and subsequent education, professional certifications often permit unlimited retakes. Want to become a teacher? Waiting 21 days and paying registration fees are the only factors that limit how many times you can retake the Praxis. It is commonplace for budding CPAs, lawyers, doctors, police officers, and architects to retake exams.

Learning from failure is a frequent path to success. Evidence indicates that an iterative process facilitates learning and the real world rewards those who overcome challenges. Some may take longer than others to learn, but upon mastery, toddlers are rewarded with new found agility.

Yet the majority of educational institutions have been slow to embrace methods that encourage learning from mistakes. In fact, traditional public school education is built on a foundation that penalizes learning slowly, differently, or through experience.

Think about conventional approaches to grading. Students begin class with various baseline proficiencies and history, but need to demonstrate their mastery of the same material in the same timeframe nevertheless. Consider two students learning a basic skill. Student 1 picks it up quickly and on 5 assessments scores 76, 83, 94, 100, 100. For student 2, it “clicks” after third try and scores 50, 60, 80, 90, 100. Student 1’s average grade is A while Student 2’s average grade is C, regardless of the fact that in the end both demonstrated mastery of the skill.

Whether the basic skill is adding single-digit numbers, treading water for three minutes, or differentiating a noun from a verb, once a student can demonstrate they do it right every time, what does that C grade actually communicate? Certainly not that both students attained mastery.

Due to space limitations, there are no detailed examples included to show what happens if a student skips a day of homework, has limited dexterity and doesn’t submit “beautiful” projects, or has personal circumstances that cause a less than representative indication of ability on an assessment. Interestingly, the student may still fully master the material.

In life, sometimes mistakes result in tragic outcomes, but most of the time, challenges are recoverable. Conversely, traditional education models are far more punitive, can communicate and measure the wrong information, and too often result in overly pressurized, non-recoverable situations.

Our district is moving away from the traditional model. Last year, we overhauled elementary school report cards to simply reflect skills mastery. This year we are piloting K-12 programs to facilitate second chance learning, like retakes and redos. Thus school, like life, has greater opportunity for recovery.

Our updates do not mean that standards are lower and “everyone gets a trophy.” To the contrary, the student turning in all homework, completing extra credit, and submitting pretty projects will no longer get the highest grade unless there is also a thorough demonstration of content mastery.

Ultimately, our district has a goal to acknowledge all authentic student learning. We want to provide equitable opportunities to achieve full educational potential. We need to meet students where they are by providing genuine prospects for success.

We hope to provide students with opportunities availed to us, resembling our experience with Sustainable Jersey for Schools. Our second chance resulted in external validation that our schools are implementing sustainability measures that create an academically-engaging, healthy learning environment, while saving the school district money.

In an era of budgetary pressures in school districts, sustainability measures save money and free up funds for the classroom. They also improve student health and wellness by improving school learning environments. Who knew that the lessons we learned in communicating our sustainability practices would so closely mimic those now leading to improved instructional practices?

Lisa Wolff is vice president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education.