In quiet Reading, Vt., home to only about 700 people, the entire fifth-grade class, just six students this year, can fit around two small tables. Friday, when New England Cable News stopped in, the kids were focusing on math and Spanish, despite the distractions of a nice day outside and a visit from their unofficial school mascots. “They’re really friendly,” beamed student Hayley Mullins, 10.

Happy, Sadie, and Izzy are a talkative trio of boer goats who come to the school to work at chewing down brush and weeds. “It was, I guess, a mess,” said fifth grader Nick Bishop, 10, remembering what the field behind the playground looked like last year.

The field, Bishop recalled, was a jungle of poison ivy and other scraggly plant life. The poison ivy, in particular, would always threaten to ruin everyone’s fun when a wayward ball would roll into it, the class said. That is, until the three goats first showed up in October of 2012 to mow down the irritating plant. “No one gets a rash and has to stay home from school; from learning,” said Nevaeh Sullivan, an 11-year-old fifth grader.

The students noted that no one is putting the planet at risk, either. The kids told NECN they are proud the idea they hatched along with their teacher, Patricia Collins, means no harsh pesticides and no fuel-burning industrial lawn mowers attacked the poison ivy patches. “It’s a much more sustainable way to do it,” explained Sam Mitchell, 11. “You don’t use up gas. You don’t use up money on gas. And the fumes could pollute the Earth.”

The project has even earned the school some big bragging rights. The U.S. Dept. of Education named the Reading Elementary School one of its 64 “Green Ribbon Schools” across the country for 2013. State education agencies nominate schools to their federal counterparts, and recipients are praised for efforts to reduce their environmental footprints. This year’s list of recipients also includes two other Vermont schools: the St. Albans City Elementary School and the Shelburne Community School.

In addition to the “eco-goats,” the elementary schoolers in Reading compost, recycle, study conservation, eat food grown on school grounds or by nearby farmers, and promote sustainability. “Our hope is that others will be able to follow the example we’re trying to set as a Green Ribbon School, and do it in their own way,” said Lou LaFasciano, the principal of the Reading Elementary School.

Malisa Williams told NECN she will continue to loan her goats to the school for occasional clean-ups, explaining her own land has benefitted from the animals’ appetites. Williams pointed out they do not seem to suffer any ill effects from eating poison ivy, but the owner is careful to not trim the goats’ hooves for about two weeks after they’ve been tromping through poison ivy-infested areas. “They really want the ‘stemmy’ things,” Williams said, describing her goats’ diet. “I’m just super excited the kids will have their playground back!”

Even Happy, Sadie, and Izzy’s electric-wire pen is powered by solar energy. It is just one more way these walking weed-whackers are helping keep the Green Mountain State “green.” “Maybe they do know that they’re doing something for the environment,” said fifth grader Abby Merseal, 10. “Maybe that’s why all the poison ivy is gone right now!”

For more information on the Green Ribbon Schools program, visit this website from the U.S. Department of Education: