It’s Easy Being Green: Jolly Green Schools

The increasing number of green schools are allowing students as well as teachers to breathe and learn a little easier.

Solar panels adorn the roof of the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. The school recently underwent a green makeover, which was designed using the U.S. Green Building Council's rating system. (Flickr/candydatec)
Solar panels adorn the roof of the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. The school recently underwent a green makeover, which was designed using the U.S. Green Building Council's rating system. (Flickr/candydatec)

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Even if you don’t listen to the media, politicians, or environmental activists, take a minute and listen to these kids.

"Our generation is the one that’s going to have to deal with the consequences of all those before us and we’re going to have to fix the problem that we’ve created."

"Live simply, so that others may simply live."

"What we do lives on, and I think that we can really make a big difference if we put in the extra effort now, which is the only time we have to help. And I think that if we can keep on helping we can make the lives of other people a lot easier, too."

These voices come from students at the Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington, D.C. who learn in a recently renovated green school. The school’s addition was designed using the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Green Building Rating System, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The council advocates for and certifies green buildings and schools, which reduce environmental impact by improving energy efficiency, limiting the watershed of the building, and using recycled materials during construction. Green schools also improve the health of the teachers and students by adding more natural light, improving air filtration, and optimizing temperature.

It’s not surprising that 115 schools across the country have become green, or that 10 states require schools to use renewable energy sources for new school construction and major renovations. It’s the same brainwave that causes consumers to buy a hybrid car; green schools, like hybrids, save on energy and ultimately on money. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, a green school uses an average of 33 percent less energy than conventionally designed schools. Building green also reduces operation and maintenance costs, which means schools can afford more teachers, computers, and books.

Fifty-five million students go to school in the United States every day, some in very poor learning environments with poor temperature comfort, harmful chemicals from paint and cleaning materials, and classrooms that don’t have a single window. The improved air and lighting from green schools increases teacher retention and reduces teachers’ sick days. And thanks to green schools, student test scores increased 5 percent in Washington state, and student absences fell by 15 percent

Green schools already save on energy and water, which reduces carbon emissions and saves a valuable natural resource. But they go even further in saving the environment. Some schools include green roofs, which provide a place for small plants, birds, and butterflies to live. The roofs reduce water run-off, which can be damaging to the surrounding ground, and they replace vegetation lost by the additional construction of a school. Green schools reduce the use of pesticides by using native plants that are pest-tolerant. And some buy local and organic food for cafeterias, reducing pesticides and the transportation for shipping. 

These schools provide huge energy savings, healthy learning spaces, and lower environmental impact. But for students and teachers, green buildings are also inspiring. They inspire teachers and students to come to school, to learn beyond the classroom, and to take what they’ve learned home.

"It started as an energy-efficient project but turned into a curriculum project," said David Mooij, superintendent of Summerfield Elementary School in Neptune, N.J, which received the second-highest LEED certification in 2006. Mooij was referring to the fact that teachers, such as those at Summerfield, are incorporating green schools into their lesson plans, and they are forming new clubs based on environmentalism. The LEED rating system even provides a point for schools that integrate the green features of the school with the institution’s mission. Schools providing 10 or more hours per year, per full-time student, of classroom instruction using the environmental features of the building will receive the credit.

At Sidwell, the 2006 L-shaped addition has changed everything. From learning to advocacy, from the classroom to life, the students are putting the environment first.

"It went from little in-class experiments to really learning about the school itself as an experiment," said Isabel Dorval, a ninth-grader at Sidwell. "I think I can speak for our whole grade, saying that suddenly you just understood your environment and how you affect it."

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