School Climate & Safety

‘Green Schools’ Benefit Budgets and Students, Report Says

By Katie Ash — May 24, 2011 5 min read
A 6th grader walks to toss his lunch waste into the compost, waste, or recycle bin near thecafeteria at Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School in Fort Collins, Colo. The school features a curriculum that emphasizes environmentally friendly service-learning projects.

“Green schools” are better for students, teachers, the environment—and the bottom line, a report released this month concludes.

Published by the American Institute of Architects and the U.S. Green Building Council, the report—which resulted from a three-day meeting at the Sundance Resort in Utah in November—details what mayors, superintendents, and other local leaders can do to advance the movement for environmentally friendly schools.

“This latest report grew out of our organizations’ goal to see green schools for all students within a generation,” said Brooks Rainwater, the director of local relations for the Washington-based AIA and a co-author of the report. “It’s happening, but it needs additional support and people getting on board to move it forward.”

The report defines a “green” school as “a building or facility that creates a healthy environment that is conducive to learning while saving energy, resources, and money.”

“The pathway to green schools in each of these communities is flexible,” said Jason Hartke, the vice president of public policy for the USGBC, in Washington, and the other co-author of the report.

‘Green Schools’ and the Bottom Line

After obtaining LEED certification last summer, Stoddert Elementary School in Washington, D.C., is finishing its first year as a newly renovated “green school.”

Its recommendations, which target local leaders such as superintendents and mayors under which building jurisdiction falls, include becoming involved with the local green-schools movement; raising awareness about the benefits of green buildings by creating a task force or hosting a summit; tracking the energy use of existing schools; passing a green cleaning policy; and advancing “green” school construction bonds.

The green-schools movement has made much progress with new school construction, said Rachel Gutter, the director of the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools. “Eighty percent of the 20 largest school districts in the U.S. have committed to not building another school that isn’t green,” she said.

Perceptions on Cost

One common misconception about high-performing school buildings is that they are more expensive than the average school building to construct, said Ms. Gutter. But there are numerous examples of high-performing schools’ being built for the same or less money, she said, as well as the return on investment high-performing, energy-efficient buildings see with reduced energy costs.

In fact, a report titled “The Cost of Green Revisited,” published in 2007 by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based construction consultant company Davis Langdon, analyzed 221 buildings, 83 of which were built for sustainability, and found no significant difference in the average cost for green buildings than the other projects.

But that’s only part of the battle, said Ms. Gutter, who emphasized the importance of taking a green approach to existing school buildings as well.

A high-performing school is not just about the building, she said, but also about what kinds of cleaning products are used on campus, what plants are in the landscaping, how the school recycles its waste, what the students are learning in their classes, and what kinds of transportation are available, for example.

Chris Bergmann, a science teacher at Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School in Fort Collins, Colo., argues for green schools’ use as a learning tool, an idea being promoted by the Green Education Foundation and the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council. Last week, those groups launched the Sustainability Education Clearinghouse, a free online tool that provides K-12 educators with the ability to share sustainability-oriented lesson ideas.

Mr. Bergmann runs and teaches a class called Kinard CARES (for Community Action Results Environment Service), in which students take a field trip to Catalina Island in California to learn about sustainability practices and to take the environmental practices they observe being used in nature and brainstorm how to apply them to their own community.

Throughout the year, the students work on improving their own school environment, which has led to the development of a compost system. The class also hopes to gain approval from administrators to build a garden and a greenhouse.

Kinard itself is a high-performing, Energy Star-certified school, built in 2006. It is powered by wind energy and makes use of natural lighting to minimize the use of lights. Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy to help promote energy efficiency.

Students at Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School in Fort Collins, Colo., also conduct greenhouse experiments, such as the one featuring plants in the classroom above.

Mr. Bergmann said he also partners with local businesses and organizations to bring in guest speakers to talk about the role of conservation and energy management in a variety of careers.

Sarah Thwaites is an 8th grader in Kinard CARES. “I wanted to get more involved in the school,” she said, “and I was looking for some way to be a better leader.”

However, financial constraints and school policy can throw up challenging barriers for school leaders hoping to move forward, said Mr. Bergmann.

“With district safety policies, to get something approved to take those visionary steps [such as the greenhouse and garden] is slow and time-consuming,” he said.

Stuart Reeve is the energy manager for the 24,00-student Poudre school district, where Kinard is located.

“We look at it economically first and foremost,” he said. The district has implemented a sustainability-management system that tracks each school’s energy use to help cut costs in all schools in the district, not just the newly built ones, he said.

And, in his experience, new sustainable school buildings have not cost more to build than their nonsustainable counterparts, Mr. Reeve said. “You just have to be smarter about how you do it,” he said.

‘A Lot of Work’

In 2009, the 20,600-student Hillsboro school district outside Portland, Ore., became the first district in the nation to have a school receive a LEED gold certification for existing buildings.

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an internationally recognized building-certification system developed by the USGBC that rates buildings based on its materials and resources, energy and atmosphere, indoor environmental quality, water efficiency, sustainable site selection, and design, as well as awareness and education.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Loren Rogers, the executive director of facilities, planning, and property for the district. “It took us about a year and a half from the time we started until the time we got the certification notice.”

To achieve the certification at Jackson Elementary School, the school retrofitted its HVAC system, re-evaluated the chemicals used to clean the school, put native species in the landscaping to require less watering, evaluated purchasing practices, revamped its recycling program, and integrated a conservation curriculum into every grade level, among other changes, Mr. Rogers said.

“It does take a little bit of money,” he said, “and, depending on the school conditions, it could be a lot of money.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as ‘Green Schools’ Benefit Budgets and Students, Report Says

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