School Climate & Safety

Philadelphia Students Turning Up the Heat on Energy Wasters

By Joetta L. Sack — August 07, 2002 8 min read
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Neftealy Mendez is focused on his mission. Clipboard and blue tickets in hand, he scans the third-floor classrooms of Penn Treaty Middle School looking for examples of wasted energy.

In a classroom where students are watching a movie, he immediately spots a glaring offense: The teacher left his computer on. Neftealy quickly writes up a blue ticket, which imposes a 25-cent fine, and the teacher offers an exasperated but sheepish smile.

In the next room, Samantha Gallagher finds the same problem. She starts to fill out a ticket, but the teacher, Sonya K. Peck, sees her and dashes to turn off the computer. Samantha hesitates, wondering if the teacher had been using the computer after all.

“Just give it to her,” Neftealy says, referring to the ticket. “No excuses.”

She writes the ticket.

It looks simple, if unorthodox, but such policing by students is part of a broader program to teach these middle school students, and their teachers, about energy. Known as Green Schools, the program is built around hands-on assignments that help take day-to-day activities and make them relevant to learning.

Philadelphia has been cited as a model for the nationwide program, which seeks to raise awareness of energy use and to use energy-related issues as a curriculum tool. Twenty-two schools in the 200,000- student Philadelphia district have embraced it as a way to engage students in learning and, administrators hope, save money on the schools’ monthly bills.

As schools across the country face tight or shrinking budgets and volatile energy costs, energy conservation is again becoming a hot topic for facility planners and administrators. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that schools spend some $6 billion a year on bills for such energy needs as lighting, heating, and cooling their buildings, and powering computers and other equipment. They could see significant savings—at least 15 percent—just by making some small, common-sense changes, according to the department.

Those steps could include turning off lights when classrooms are not in use, replacing high-wattage bulbs with energy-saving fluorescents, and using natural light and fresh air wherever possible. While such tips have been urged since the energy crunches of the 1970s and 1980s, a more recent trend is “sustainable schools,” which are environmentally friendly facilities that use renewable resources and create their own energy to operate.

The Alliance to Save Energy, a national nonprofit coalition of business, environmental, and federal and state government groups, established the Green Schools program in 1999 to help schools like Penn Treaty.

Some schools have cut their energy costs by at least 25 percent, thanks to the program’s strategies, according to Janet Castellini, a spokeswoman for the alliance. The group gives each school a grant of about $600 for supplies, and works with teachers and other staff members to train them in using Green Schools’ materials and methods.

In 1998, the Energy Department launched Energy Smart Schools, a separate program designed to help schools save 25 percent to 30 percent annually on their energy bills by retrofitting buildings with cost-effective materials and changing their habits of using energy.

Seeking Savings

Such strategies can save big bucks. For instance, the 261,000-student Broward County, Fla., district began saving $100,000 annually just by replacing 40-watt bulbs in exit signs with special 3-watt bulbs.

Elsewhere, a Wisconsin high school retrofitted its heating and cooling systems to use all outdoor air, which improved air quality and cut its $200,000 yearly natural-gas bill in half. Other schools have installed solar panels and skylights to increase daylight in schools.

Here in Philadelphia, meanwhile, Ms. Peck says the policing by the middle schoolers at Penn Treaty has helped remind her and her colleagues that little things add up. “I was wondering when they would catch me,” she said after the class in which she was ticketed by Samantha Gallagher.

The students expected to issue enough tickets during the school year to generate several hundred dollars for school supplies. Green Schools’ energy-saving exercises have also helped the students learn and apply mathematics, science, and social studies lessons.

The four Penn Treaty teachers who use the program came up with projects such as calculating energy usage and showing students how to read the school’s electric meter and analyze their families’ electric bills.

In one case, a class visited local stores to research the energy output of everyday household products and determine whether a cheaper product that used more energy would be the better value in the long term. In most cases, the energy- efficient model was the better value.

Energy-conscious students can’t always have the effect they’d like. Students lament the 75-year-old school’s aged, leaky windows and outdated heating system, but know there is no money to replace them.

Yielding Dividends

The program’s ideals bring to mind the energy-conservation goals of the 1970s. But the new programs go much further in looking at long-term consequences to the environment and long-term savings, said Barbara C. Worth, an assistant director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"[In the 1970s,] they were just looking at saving the bucks,” she said. “Now, it’s more a question of ‘What are we going to save over the long term?’”

Increases in schools’ energy costs in recent years can be attributed in part to trends such as longer hours for community use of schools, smaller class sizes, and more technology in classrooms—all of which involve a greater demand for energy.

Several districts have set up other energy-patrol programs similar to Green Schools, some using federal grants. In Little Rock, Ark., the 25,000-student school district has used such a grant to form an energy patrol, which in turn has saved the district more than $700,000 annually, according to the Energy Department.

Some districts have hired consultants and staff members to check buildings for examples of wasted energy.

A number of states are signing on as well. Last year, Massachusetts began a $13.5 million pilot program to give grants to districts to help incorporate energy-saving features into new schools.

In California, where schools are familiar with high energy bills, the state established an energy commission that has spent $7 million on educational programs and materials, plus $370,000 in grants for schools to teach about energy usage.

“We can’t spend this money on new schools, even if they are energy-efficient, if we don’t tie in this component of letting students know what we’re doing,” said William J. Keese, the chairman of the California Energy Commission.

The federal Energy Department, meanwhile, has grander plans. “We want to move to a day where schools use zero energy, or produce energy to give back,” said Mark Ginsberg, the director of the department’s office of building technology, state, and community programs. “That’s possible in our lifetimes.”

Taking Ownership

The Green Schools program arrived in Philadelphia two years ago. Penn Treaty Middle School, a low-performing school located in the blue-collar Fishtown neighborhood that enrolls 830 students in grades 5-8, adopted it in January.

John Sole, the district’s service-learning specialist, thought it sounded like a good program to help students learn academic and life skills. “These kinds of programs really have relevance,” he said.

Some of the teachers and students, though, admit it took a while to see the merits of the program.

Veteran 8th grade teacher Sophia Boone, who teaches the curriculum in her science classes, said she had seen dozens of new programs pass through without having any real effect on schools or students, and she didn’t believe this one would be any different.

“I really wasn’t much interested in it,” Ms. Boone said of Green Schools.

“Mostly everybody in the class thought it would be hard,” and boring, added Said Saleh, an 8th grader.

But once the program started, attitudes changed.

“They just loved it,” Maritza Price, a science and math teacher, said of students’ reaction. “It’s something the kids can take ownership of, and it gives them responsibility.”

Nationally Noticed

And Penn Treaty’s program is getting attention. Ms. Price, Neftealy Mendez, and Said traveled to Washington earlier this summer to present the program at the National Press Club.

Most important, Mr. Sole said, the exercises will likely help students perform better on state assessments because of the program’s problem-solving strategies. And in some cases, teachers add, Green Schools has helped give students with behavior problems or low self-esteem a sense of pride and purpose.

In spite of its perceived success, though, it’s unclear whether the program will continue at Penn Treaty. Because of the school’s poor academic performance, Penn Treaty is slated, as part of a state takeover of the Philadelphia district, to be run by Edison Schools Inc., the New York City-based school management company, which many teachers here view as a foe. (“Phila. Lines Up Outside Groups to Run Schools,” this issue.)

As a result, most Penn Treaty teachers planned to transfer.

Ms. Castellini of the Alliance to Save Energy is confident that the program will continue in Philadelphia, even if it is at other sites. Penn Treaty teachers, she said, will train teams of teachers at other schools.

“When the dust settles in Philadelphia, we will end up identifying people at different schools to lead the program,” Ms. Castellini said. “No matter what happens, there will be students and teachers in classrooms looking for ways to learn.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Philadelphia Students Turning Up the Heat on Energy Wasters

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