Center for American Progress

It’s Easy Being Green: Schools Remodel for Sustainability

It’s Easy Being Green: Schools Remodel for Sustainability

Congress considers legislation to make public schools environmentally sustainable buildings, fostering healthier and more productive learning environments.

Ken Kirkland, custodial manager at Lockport Township High School in Lockport, Illinois, shows environmentally friendly cleaning supplies that janitors use to clean the school. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Ken Kirkland, custodial manager at Lockport Township High School in Lockport, Illinois, shows environmentally friendly cleaning supplies that janitors use to clean the school. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Last week a House panel approved the 21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act, a bill that would authorize $6.4 billion in 2010 for school construction projects that meet certain environmental standards. Projects that could qualify include maximizing green space, finding more efficient ways to control room temperature with windows and building materials, maximizing daylight, using organic compound cleaning products and tapping into renewable energy sources like solar power. The bill would provide additional funding for such projects until 2015, by which time all publicly-funded school construction projects would have to meet environmental standards.

Ten states across the country already require new school construction to use renewable energy sources, but this bill would ensure that all students have access to healthy, eco-friendly environments. Schools around the country have already taken diverse and creative steps to integrate environmental measures into their construction and curriculum. The cafeteria at Scarsdale High School in New York serves vegetables grown in an organic garden on campus. Students and teachers planted the garden together, which in only a few months generated over 600 pounds of produce. Other schools have utilized roof space to create gardens or install solar panels.

Energy-efficient building requirements are fiscally conservative in the long run as finite resources and expanding demand will make energy prices continue to rise. One study shows that schools undertaking these measures save an average of $70 per square foot, 20 times the initial cost of building retrofits and installation. These savings will free up much needed money to address educational programs and other pressing needs in our public schools.

Finances aside, these schools conserve many other resources. Not only do they use about 30-50 percent less energy than their conventional counterparts, conserving electricity and natural gas, they also use about 30 percent less water through strategies such as rainwater catchment and reducing irrigation needs for playing fields. Eco-friendly schools will also significantly reduce harmful emissions. A single green school could lead to an average emission reduction of 1,200 pounds of nitrogen oxide, 1,300 pounds of sulfur dioxide, and 585,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Many of our nation’s schools are in poor decay and ready for overdue renovations. Outdated building materials contribute not only to wasted energy and inefficiency, but they also contribute to increasing health problems for students. Hazardous materials like asbestos are still only optional for districts to remove. Children across the nation suffer increasing rates of asthma and other allergic conditions, partly from exposure to harsh building materials. New laws would revitalize school building codes, making them healthier learning places for students and teachers alike.

Environmentally responsible schools are proven to improve student performance. There is a positive correlation between “green schools” and lower rates of absenteeism. In schools with poorer air quality both teachers and student take more sick days, increasing costs for substitutes and decreasing learning time in the classroom. Schools can be constructed using modern techniques to rely much more on natural light, which has been shown to improve performance by up to 5 percent on standardized tests.

This reconstruction and renovation will also create jobs, stimulating the economy. The professional skills workers use in schools are transferable to other eco-friendly retrofitting projects, which are growing rapidly.

Another benefit perhaps outshines all the others: fostering a generation of truly eco-conscious individuals. Students who grow up immersed in an environment built around sustainable living will accept these practices as habits and carry sustainable values with them in their lives beyond the classroom. Students will also learn valuable first hand lessons about environmental responsibility, preparing them to enter the new “green economy.” Starting young is crucial to crafting the wider cultural mindset necessary to preserve our planet for generations to come.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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