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Greening the Little Red Schoolhouse

April 23, 2009

Having spent more than one third of my life – 22 years and counting – as a student, I am very familiar with the inside of school buildings. Because of hearing loss in infancy, I have strained to sort out speech from echos and background noise, and as a result, suffered from the interior environment in every school I have ever attended.

 Photo by Michael Mathers Clackamas High School in Oregon, built in 2002, was the first LEED-certified high school in the country.

Clackamas High School in Oregon, built in 2002, was the first LEED-certified high school in the country. Photo by Michael Mathers

During the day, I now work in the president’s suite of the rather-nice San Francisco campus of Alliant International, a nonprofit private university. During the time I worked for a Bay Area nonprofit that was part of the nationwide Annenberg Challenge for K-12 public school reform, I saw dozens of dirty, down-at-the-heel inner city schools, and the occasional spanking new suburban high school. (These vast edifices, designed to house as many as 5000 students, were often far too large to provide for safe and connected community.) And recently, in this blog, I carped about the acoustic quality of a UC Berkeley Extension classroom where I had been learning about building codes and disabled access laws.

Despite all this experience, what I have not seen in my extensive school tours, though, are green schools.

What Are Green Schools?

Green schools are childcare facilities, K-12 schools, athletic facilities and university buildings that are erected in keeping with sustainable principles. They are healthier and more productive learning environments than your typical little red schoolhouse. (I mean that figuratively, of course, since we have really have not had little schoolhouses, red or otherwise, for several generations now!)

Historic red schoolhouse in Johnstown, Ohio

Historic red schoolhouse in Johnstown, Ohio

In green schools, students have less exposure to mold, mildew and other indoor toxins and that results in fewer colds, asthma attacks and bouts of the flu. While reducing greenhouse gas emissions, green schools achieve lower energy and water bills, saving on the average, about $100,000 per school per year!

Since education is the biggest sector of the construction industry – in 2007, more than $35 billion in tax dollars was spent on building K-12 schools – we’re talking about saving megabucks here. The move towards green schools represents a golden opportunity to direct dollars away from literal “overhead” and into teaching and learning.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), through its LEED® building certification program, has set a goal of making sure that, within the next generation, every school we build in this country will be a green school. Toward that end, USGBC tailored the standards it had already developed for new buildings (and used for schools) to specifically reflect the needs of schools.

LEED® is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it is certification system for sustainable buildings. It’s used more often for commercial than residential buildings, and it’s used more often for new construction than remodeling. LEED for Schools is now about a year old.

LEED Medallion

Under either the old or new standard, close to 1,000 schools have already gained LEED certification, and roughly one new school wins LEED certification every day. A number of school districts have adopted a policy of building nothing but green schools.

After Hurricane Katrina leveled public schools, New Orleans opted to rebuild them green, and Greensburg, Kansas, which suffered a destructive tornado in May 2007, is also rebuilding all of its schools to meet LEED’s earth-friendly guidelines.

Ohio was the first state to decree that all of its new schools would be built to the LEED silver standard. Maryland, Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, Washington, Connecticut and the District of Columbia already require new schools to be built green while California and Pennsylvania offer strong incentives to follow environmental specifications.

What Does LEED Cover in Schools?

I am very happy to say that LEED for Schools includes standards for acoustic quality, as well as indoor air quality and mold. Ironically, those concerns are not addressed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), one of the driving forces for setting health standards in schools. (For more on ADA, hearing-impaired students and acoustics, see my post Def Design in a Noisy World.)

Generally speaking, the LEED scoring system allocates 100 points in several broad areas of environmental and health concerns, then throws in a few bonus points for specific regional issues and for design innovation. Projects are ranked as silver, gold or platinum based on the total number of points they achieve.

LEED for schools covers these broad areas of environmental and human health:

  • Appropriate site selection and development.
  • Efficient water and energy use.
  • The use of healthy and environmentally sustainable building materials, finishes, and furnishings.
  • Ecologically sensitive waste stream management.
  • Good quality indoor air quality and occupant comfort.

Better Achievement Via Improved Architecture?

Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, Marylands first LEED Gold school

Great Seneca Creek Elementary School, Maryland's first LEED Gold school

Having spent six years working for a nonprofit devoted to improved and more equitable student learning, I can tell you that teacher quality matters a great deal, as does having literate parents who provide a sane and supportive home life. So does the quality of the learning environment at school and at home – as one school advocate so memorably put it, “You can’t study when your hair is on fire.”

I have read studies quantifying the effect of all of these things, but until very recently, I had not seen any studies that connected student health and learning to the quality of the building in which the students work. But that research has been done, and the evidence connecting green schools and improved learning is conclusive:

  • A study entitled Greening America’s Schools by Capital E found that in addition to consuming 30% less water and 30-50% less energy, green schools achieved an average of 38.5% reduction in asthma because of their improved indoor air quality.
  • A study of daylight in North Carolina schools found that students in full-spectrum light were healthier and attended school 3.2 to 3.8 days more per year. Surprisingly, they had 9 times less dental decay, and grew in height an average of 2.1 centimeters more (over the two-year period) than students attending schools with average light. They also remained in a more positive in mood. To top all this off, researcher Heschong Mahone found that students in the classrooms with the most daylight had consistently higher test scores by 7-18 percent.

Healthier Teachers and Communities

Still another study found that green schools cut teacher sick time and absenteeism. (This only stands to reason: As any teacher or parent can tell you, school children are little vectors who bring their classmates’ germs home to share with rest of the family. Adults can then in turn pass the pestilence on at their workplaces!)

I also found it interesting that LEED awards credit when school buildings are made “a more integrated part of the community by enabling the building and its play fields to be used for nonschool events and functions.”

This not only makes environmental sense, it also makes a contribution to the community’s social health. The “beacon schools” movement, which began about 20 years ago, stressed connections between schools and community by bringing community groups into the school to provide before- and after-school programs and community services ranging from health clinics to art classes. Studies of beacon schools showed that among other benefits, crime usually went down in the school’s neighborhood, particularly in the hours just after school let out.

LEED isn’t trying to reduce crime, but it does encourage schools to provide a separate entrance and share their facilities with services such as health clinics, police offices, libraries or media centers and commercial businesses.

The Schoolhouse as a Teaching Tool

Finally, the green features of the school can also serve as a tool to teach environmental stewardship. LEED for Schools gives extra credit to schools that take on this role.

Interior of Walker Elementary.

The first sustainable-design school in the state of Texas, Roy Lee Walker Elementary was honored by the American Institute of Architects on their Earth Day Top 10 List for Environmentally Responsible Design Projects in the nation. Credit SHW Group LLP

A good example of how to use the school as a teaching tool is provided by the Roy Lee Walker Elementary School in McKinney, Texas. As reported by the George Lucas Foundation’s publication Edutopia, here’s how the building’s features are intertwined with the curriculum:

…sustainable design supports the school’s year-round focus on environmental education. Every year, the school hosts a sustainability fair, with each grade level responsible for creating projects around the school’s many eco-friendly design features, such as solar or wind power, water collection and reuse, or recycling. Students create and present their information through videos, artwork, and experiments. “By the time they’re out of fifth grade, our students have explored all the aspects of the building,” says [Principal Deb] Beasley.

Many building features are also incorporated into classroom lessons. The pond, for example, might be used by students in a science class to test the pH level of water samples, or as a colorful subject for young painters in an art class who are learning to mimic the lush brushstrokes of French impressionist Claude Monet. With the school’s two sundials, students use the location of the sun to tell time, as well as to identify the solstices. In the main hallway, a huge gauge monitors how much rainwater has collected in the school’s cisterns, and math teachers use the information during lessons in graphing.

More on Green Schools

>>>>>>>

To Sir, With Love

(excerpt, video on YouTube)

The time has come for closing books and at long last looks must end
And as I leave I know that I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, but what can I give you in return?

If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start
But I would rather you let me give my heart ‘To Sir, With Love’

- R Granier, Marc London and Don Black



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4 comments

  1. Thank you. Really appreciate this quite good post / discussion.

    Not just teacher, but also student absenteeism should fall.

    Question, which I haven’t researched: What is the performance correlation between percentage days with primary teacher in the room and, as well, student absenteeim? All things being equal, I will make an assertion that more continuity in teaching (e.g., fewer days with substitutes) and lower student absenteeism will improve educational performance. The ‘healthy’ environment of green schools will foster that.


  2. Improved indoor air quality and healthy building materials will greatly improve the overall health of students and I believe will improve learning as well. There is so much green building can do for us as a society – and schools are the best place to start.

    John Poole


  3. Very good introduction and review about the subject.
    The references are also worth reading!


  4. Excellent post. Thanks for the heads up. For Central Ohio going green does not have to be hard. It can be the easiest thing you do today. You may wonder why it is necessary. The fact is that it is necessary because you want your children, or your grandchildren to enjoy the planet that you have so graciously been able to delight in.



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