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November 1, 2007
Vol. 49
No. 11

Green Schools: Thinking Outside the Schoolroom Box

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Whether public or private, primary or secondary, hundreds of schools from the Pacific Northwest to the Eastern Seaboard are taking a cue from conservation advocates, architects, the scientific community, and local and national government incentives to "build green."
They're called high-performance schools, sustainable schools, or green schools, but whatever the name, this new approach to school construction seeks to diminish the building's impact on the environment through concerted efforts to conserve water and energy, maximize natural light, and integrate its design with the surrounding landscape.

The Growing of the Green

Increases in school district enrollment prompts new construction and renovation of older buildings, so the design features of green schools could become the industry standard in the future. California, for example, recently allotted $100 million for environment-friendly school projects as part of its multibillion dollar bond for capital improvements for K–12 and higher education facilities.
"Education is a large part of the commercial construction industry, and green building is predicted to be the major part of education construction in the future," says Art Gissendaner, director of public, government, and regulatory affairs for the Council of Educational Facility Planners International in Scottsdale, Ariz.
In fact, education is the fastest growing sector for green building, and industry analysts predict it could make up as much as 10 percent of the total green building marketplace that will rise from $12 billion to $60 billion in the next two years.
On average, building green costs 2 percent more ($3 per square foot) than traditional building methods, according to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Higher initial costs of green buildings, however, "are offset by lower operating costs over the life of the building," Gissendaner notes. This often comes in the form of savings on heating, air conditioning, and water costs because of school design elements that take advantage of site location for better natural lighting and heat or that use stored rainwater for toilets and campus irrigation.
Growing concern for sustaining the environment combined with a desire to provide healthy and aesthetically pleasing spaces that contribute to an optimal learning environment seem to be the driving forces behind the growth in building green schools.

School Design Impacts Student Learning

"Green schools are gaining popularity because there is a body of research that shows a direct correlation between where children learn and how well they learn," Gissendaner says. "Green schools are more energy efficient, less costly to operate, environmentally safe, and healthier for children and staff."
High levels of acoustic, thermal, and visual comfort, along with generous amounts of daylight can have a positive impact on student performance, say experts. In years past, the thinking was to minimize daylight and views of outdoor scenery "to keep people more on-task," says Deane Evans, executive director of the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. That view about natural lighting "has shifted around rather radically," he emphasizes.
Evans points to research by the Heschong Mahone Group in California that shows higher amounts of classroom daylight, provided it has no glare, was correlated to students making 20 to 26 percent higher gains in their rates of learning in math and reading compared to students with low-lighting levels.
In the report, Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes? (2002), Mark Schneider of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities in Washington, D.C., pulled together a number of studies to show the impact of indoor air quality, thermal comfort, lighting, school size, and other building variables on student learning. For example, one study showed that poor indoor air quality often resulted in increases in sickness from airborne bacteria, mold, and asthma.
A Department of Energy profile on Clearview Elementary School in Hanover, Pa., chosen as a model green building, declared that, when the school was built in 2002, its ventilation system "helped students and teachers stay healthy, alert, and focused on learning." Five years later, Principal Joseph Albin confirms that students "enjoy the extra daylight on sunny days" and that teachers report fewer "allergy conditions than where they taught in previous schools."

Setting a Green Standard

In 2007, in response to the growth in the number of green schools under construction, the USGBC adapted its national green building certification program, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for schools. The USGBC tailored the standards to address specific issues, such as children's health, the education mission, and the variety of usages in a comparatively small space.
Such issues had already been addressed through the California-based Collaborative of High Performance Schools, which was the first to set more stringent K–12 green school building standards—largely based on USGBC commercial building certification—on everything from design, building materials, and alternative energy sources to natural lighting, indoor air quality, and acoustics tailored toward education needs.
Nearly 400 school buildings have been entered into the USGBC's green school certification pipeline, says Rachel Gutter, who manages the K–12 and higher education vetting program. Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington are the states with the highest number of school districts showing green building projects, she adds. So far, approximately 27 schools in the United States have gained the LEED certification.
School-building project teams typically start the certification process online at the USGBC Web site during the design phase and follow through to the building's completion. It's a stringent process that requires hundreds of pages of documentation to ensure that a building can meet strict standards for energy and water efficiency and other environment-friendly standards, says Gutter.
The LEED green standard for schools rates school buildings on various criteria and awards schools as certified, silver, gold, or platinum, depending on points garnered in the following categories:
  • Site selection and development
  • Water and energy use
  • Environmentally preferred materials, finishes, and furnishings
  • Waste stream management
  • Indoor air quality and comfort
  • Innovation in sustainable design and construction
For students and school staff, perhaps the most obvious sign of a green school is the high level of natural light that's achieved through a southern exposure and the use of high windows in the hallway, known as clerestory windows, and skylights. At Clearview Elementary, the clerestory windows and a sunscreen wall—a freestanding masonry with openings—maximize the low-angled rays of the winter sun while minimizing the more direct rays of the summer sun and helping to regulate the building's temperature.
Besides using a ventilation system that introduces fresh air into the school on a regular basis, green schools also improve indoor air quality by avoiding "off gassing," which is the process whereby high levels of toxins, such as commonly occurring formaldehyde, are released through evaporation. Green schools use paints, carpeting and flooring, and furniture and other woodwork, such as shelving, that do not release these high levels of toxins.
"LEED for Schools places an added emphasis on high indoor air quality because children are more susceptible to environmental toxins and illness," says Gutter, because children's small body mass decreases their ability to detoxify substances.
Improving classroom acoustics requires that builders take into account materials, surfaces, and ceiling structures in a room to minimize reverberation and achieve ideal levels of sound absorption and reflection. "Concrete floors with blackboards and exposed ceilings could create an environment where kids can't hear effectively in all parts of the room," Gutter points out.

Learning from Green Schools

One of the side benefits of building a green school is raising awareness among students about environmental sustainability and their own ability to have an impact on the environment. Many teachers in green schools use their own building as a site for studying the impact of design, high-tech heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and solar energy on their school and the natural environment. Others display the statistics on water and energy efficiency on public screens so students can better understand the impact and relationship between outdoor temperatures and sunlight on energy use. Others study the nature in their school's own backyard, which, thanks to large windows with views of the outdoors, they can appreciate from the inside as well.
One such school, Clackamas High School in Oregon, is considered a national model for energy conservation. As part of its LEED school certification, Clackamas preserved a 6-acre wetland on its 42-acre campus. Students there spend 15 weekends of the year planting native trees and plants and, in science classes, they monitor the building's ongoing impact on the watershed, according to The Green Guide, which designated the school as one of the top 10 green schools in 2006.
In promoting a green culture, the school has planted 3,500 trees on the campus through service-learning projects. In a science class titled "Sustainable Systems," students analyzed how the school handles its waste management and devised a more effective schoolwide recycling system for bottles and paper.
Rod Shroufe, who teaches Sustainable Systems, also uses the Clackamas campus wetlands for his field-based environmental science class. Here juniors and seniors learn to read the track marks that identify coyotes, gray fox, and opossums and spy on nesting hawks or owls. "Kids have no idea that these animals are around them," says Shroufe.
"Human nature is to take things for granted, so we forget that in a previous school we may have had asbestos tiles falling on our heads. But when you ask students whether they have a good view from their classrooms or locker rooms that don't smell like stale clothes, they say, ‘Yeah, you're right,’" says Shroufe.
At Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in Montgomery County, Md., the state's first LEED-certified school, a mural of sun, clouds, and snow-capped mountains in the main hallway illustrates the water cycle for its K–5 students. The painting ties into a water pattern on the hallway floor that leads to the school's backyard so students will understand that here the school's storm water collection area pumps the rainwater back into the Great Seneca Creek, which ultimately drains into the Atlantic Ocean, completing the cycle. In fact, the school uses 43 percent less water than the average elementary school through waterless urinals, low-flow faucets, and dual-flush toilets that save water depending on the needs of the flush, say school officials.
"If 5-year-olds are making decisions about saving water in the restrooms at such a young age, then what will they be deciding on when they are grown adults?" asks Great Seneca Principal Greg Edmundson. "It can only be good," he predicts.

New Vigor for Environmental Studies?

Building a green school not only has a positive impact on the environment—ecologically and often esthetically—and, as some studies show, student performance, but it also teaches students environmental stewardship on a real-world level. Students see sustainability in action everyday in the natural lighting, water conservation measures, recycling efforts, planting, and nature study that new green schools often prompt on the school campus.

But, some educators ask, "Shouldn't understanding the environment be a more formal part of the modern curriculum?"

"It depends on the goal. From an instructional goal perspective, if teachers want students to understand the environment, or water conservation, or solid wastes, a recycling unit or an activity will reach this limited goal," says Bora Simmons, director of the National Project for Excellence in Environmental Education.

"However, we're interested in environmental education that is more comprehensive and integrated. We want a more comprehensive understanding of how these environmental issues connect so that students understand not only the science behind it, but also the social policy and the economics and history of these issues."

In the Spring 2007 issue of Science Educator, Northwestern University education professor Daniel Edelson argues for the inclusion of environmental science in the high school core curriculum. Environmental science reflects how the various disciplines of science integrate in a real-world context to deal with what Edelson calls "unresolved science." Edelson believes that the personal and everyday impacts of the science and the political controversy these issues arouse makes them even more compelling and engaging for students.

"My experience is that environmental science is naturally engaging to students, regardless of whether they are urban, suburban, or rural, because they understand that they are learning about issues that affect their lives and the lives of others," says Edelson about the argument that he makes in his article.

"The way to make sure [environmental science] doesn't lose that naturally engaging quality is to keep the science learning in context. In the environmental science curricula that we design, students are always reminded about how the basic science that they are learning is useful to understanding real world environmental issues."

A robust environmental education program such as what Simmons and Edelson advocate will develop environmentally literate adults who have a deep understanding of real-world problems and skills for solving them, both educators argue.

"We're not about teaching advocacy; what we want is an active citizenry in the same way that civics wants an active citizenry—to have the skills and knowledge to be active in a democracy so they can make good choices for themselves and the environment."

—Rick Allen

Rick Allen is a former ASCD writer and content producer.

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