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August 2007
It's Quite Easy Being Green
Local Schools Set an Example

by Julie Bloss Kelsey

You may have read the phrase in the newspaper or heard it on TV. Perhaps your children have mentioned it at the dinner table. It seems like you should know what it means. But if you were pressed for a definition, you would have to admit defeat.

Exactly what is a "green school"?

You are not alone in your confusion. The phrase conjures up disjointed images: a school surrounded by trees, children digging in the dirt, a teacher lecturing students not to leave the lights on.

Yet the phrase "green school" can be used to describe all of the above — and more.

The Greening of America’s Schools

Initially, the green school movement was more of a "clean school" movement, focusing on removing toxins, such as lead, asbestos and mold, from a child’s learning environment. But today, the phrase "green school" has expanded to encompass much more, including environmentally sound architecture, the use of nontoxic products to clean the school and a heightened sense of ecological awareness in the classroom.

The U.S. Green Building Council has developed a nationally accepted ranking system for environmentally friendly, or green, buildings, known as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. LEED for Schools is a subset of this organization, providing an independent certification that a school building meets certain voluntary standards in green building design, such as water conservation and energy efficiency.

Different Shades of Green

Anja Caldwell is a LEED-accredited architect and manager of the Green Building Program for the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland. Caldwell says that her county’s schools have three tiers of green, focusing on school buildings, cleaning products used within the schools and student awareness of energy use. "Montgomery County is really at the forefront," she says. "There’s nobody with my position nationwide."

The MCPS green school initiative follows LEED to make sure that new schools are "designed green inside and out," Caldwell says. Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, which opened in September 2006, has recently earned a gold ranking through LEED and is the first LEED-certified school in the state of Maryland. Caldwell says that the school includes flushless urinals and dual flush toilets which, when combined with the school’s other water conservation features, will help to save "about 360,000 gallons [of water] a year." Not to mention fascinate the students, she adds, who can now choose how much water they use to flush the toilet.

Caldwell says that MCPS is currently conducting a pilot study in which one environmentally friendly cleaning product has been substituted in place of 10 more toxic cleansers. She hopes that the program is adopted by schools across the county. "We try to limit the amount of toxins that our kids are exposed to with the cleaning products."

Energy conservation rounds out MCPS’s Green Schools Focus. The Montgomery County Board of Education began the School Eco-Response Team, or SERT, around 15 years ago as an energy-saving initiative, says Caldwell. This program was so successful that the Alliance to Save Energy modeled their national Green Schools Program on SERT. Student groups conduct energy audits of the school with the intent of reducing energy use. SERT teams turn off lights and computers, measure the energy use of appliances and search for energy leaks within the school buildings.

The program has been mandatory for three years now in MCPS, with each school seeking a 5 percent yearly reduction in energy usage. Caldwell says the program can be very effective. For example, if the kids use a watt meter to measure the plug load of a refrigerator and find that it is an energy hog, "the kids are not shy to point that out to their teacher … if the kids get it, they can shame the adult into [fixing] it."

Why Should Schools Go Green?

In Greening America’s Schools, Costs and Benefits, Gregory Kats examined 30 LEED-certified schools built in the United States during the years 2001 through 2006. According to Kats, on average these schools cost less than 2 percent more to build but provided financial benefits that were 20 times as large as the extra cost, using about one-third less energy and water than conventional schools.

But the benefits of going green aren’t only financial, reported Kats. Less polluted indoor air, control over indoor air temperature and improved lighting seemed to translate into happier and healthier students. One of the schools reported a 15 percent drop in absenteeism after becoming a green school; another reported significant improvements in both health and test scores.

At their Dulles campus, AOL is currently building their second child care center, anticipated to be the first LEED-certified child care facility in Virginia. A spokesperson for the company says that, given its function, it just made sense to build the new facility with eco-friendly design elements.

"Loudoun County is one of the fastest growing counties in the country. As such, [the] ability to find quality child care in the area is difficult. From a benefits perspective, this allows employees to feel comfortable and safe with their children nearby at a high-quality and eco-friendly center," says Jodi Fuller, director of health and benefits for AOL.

Attending a Green School

The Sidwell Friends Middle School, located in northwest DC, was the first secondary school in the country to achieve the highest level of platinum LEED certification. The renovated and enlarged school building now provides some unique learning opportunities through its water-management system. Students are growing vegetation on the roof (the vegetation helps to filter and collect rainwater), observing Washington, D.C.'s, first constructed wetland (which treats building wastewater) and studying their onsite pond (supplied with water from the buildings’ gutters). And that’s just on the outside.

Jennifer Mitchell is head of the Middle School science department and teaches fifth grade science. "The whole school has become a laboratory," she says.

One example? Reflective solar panels have increased the level of sunlight coming into the building. Mitchell says the improved lighting has made a notable difference. "Natural light brings cheer," she says. "People are happy to be here." The new playground, which makes use of recycled materials, has made a big change in the outdoor landscape, says Mitchell. In addition, the newly constructed access ramps, wetland and biology pond use reclaimed wood from pilings once found in Baltimore Harbor.

The upgraded school includes monitors to show how much energy is being used (and conserved) by the new building. Fifth graders research and provide information for a kiosk about 18 different tree species on campus.

Mitchell says the new building has heightened environmental awareness of the entire school community. "The eighth graders — 28 of them — have been trained to be tour guides [of the new building]. It’s a great leadership piece for them. They’re very excited about being experts about the building."

This past year, many classes grew herbs in the garden on the roof, says Mitchell. The cooking staff then used herbs for lunch, which led the students to think about which herbs would be needed for different dishes. "Now we’re working together, and that’s huge," says Mitchell.

The Future of Green Schools

There is a growing national awareness of school-related environmental issues. LEED certification for commercial buildings was adapted for schools and launched as its own program in April 2007. And just this year, Illinois joined New York as the second state in the nation to enact legislation requiring the use of nontoxic cleaning materials in schools. More states are expected to follow suit.

If your child’s school hasn’t gone green yet, don’t be surprised if it does soon. And the best thing about attending a green school like Sidwell Friends? "It makes you more aware of your role in the community and of being stewards of the earth," says Mitchell. She adds, "[Our] teachers are highly motivated to bring a wonderful program to the kids."

Julie Bloss Kelsey is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Germantown. She holds a master’s degree in environmental management.

For more information about green schools, contact the following organizations:

The Alliance to Save Energy, which trains teachers and students on how to conserve energy using a hands-on approach, administers the Green Schools Program. 202-857-0666, www.ase.org/section/program/greenschl.

The Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE), a nonprofit educational association, provides certification for green schools in Maryland. To obtain a "Green School" award, the school must provide documentation in three areas: waste reduction, student investigation of environmental issues and student/community involvement. 410-827-7145, www.maeoe.org.

To learn more about Montgomery County’s Green Building Program, call 240-314-1095 or visit www.Schools2Green.org.

The U.S. Green Building Council administers the LEED program. 800-795-1747, www.usgbc.org.

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