Schools Go Green

Many schools are going green. With the support of students, teachers, parents, local businesses and government, schools are finding creative ways to reduce their impact on the environment.

Dan Lazar is the principal of a school that has done a lot of green projects. In fact, the Albert M. Greenfield School is the first school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to install solar panels on its roof. This was done in 2010.

The solar panel system is able to produce 6,400 kWh of energy annually. This isn’t enough to provide all the energy the school needs, but it makes a big difference.

The solar panel system is part of a green project started by the Greenfield School and the Philadelphia school district. The project’s focus is twofold. First, to make the school more environmentally friendly. Second, to help students learn more about environmental issues.

Involving Students, Parents and Community

The school has more than just solar panels. It has a weather station on its roof. It has two gardens filled with indigenous (naturally local) plants. It also has a play area with a porous surface — meaning rainwater seeps into the groundwater system rather than draining into the river.

“There’s been a lot of support from parents,” says Lazar. “It has transformed our schoolyard from being total asphalt to being an environment where there’s green on our yards. And it’s a lot nicer than it had been.”

Funding for the project has come from various sources, including the city’s water department, a local bank, local foundations and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“So far the expenditure on this project has been somewhere around $500,000 to $700,000, all of which has been fundraised through donations and fundraising events throughout the years,” says Lazar.

Teachers use one garden to teach students about the evolution and growth of a typical Pennsylvania woodland. The other garden teaches them about the local riverside environments.

There’s more to come, including an enclosed observation platform on the roof and an outdoor classroom space.

“In addition, solar panels now are part of our fifth grade curriculum in solar energy,” says Lazar. “We have a computer display in our lobby that tracks the output of our solar panels on the roof, which is accessible on the web, so anyone can check it out. Our teachers can use it in the classroom to monitor solar output.”

Building New Green Schools

Schools like Greenfield are improving their existing buildings. This is called retrofitting. Other schools are being built environmentally friendly from day one.

Companies are stepping forward to build these new green schools. One example is ZETA Communities. This company builds schools (and other types of buildings) that use up to 60 percent less energy.

The first school built by ZETA was the Davis Waldorf School in Davis, California. The building has many features that reduce the school’s environmental impact. Dual flush toilets mean less water use. Special insulation means energy efficiency. A specially designed “cool roof” means lower energy use and lower cooling costs. Many skylights mean less need for artificial lighting. And the list goes on.

Laura Blair is director of project development for ZETA Communities. She says the company is helping to lead a “paradigm shift” in how schools and other buildings are constructed.

“The purpose of this shift is to incorporate green, healthy, highly energy-efficient construction materials and methods in an affordable way,” says Blair, “so that new buildings minimize greenhouse gas emissions, lower ongoing operating and maintenance costs for the school districts, and provide a superior learning environment for the students.”

Demand for high performance buildings is growing, she adds. New building standards and the public are demanding higher quality, more energy-efficient buildings.

There are other benefits of green schools, too — they can benefit the students themselves. Studies show that students perform better when buildings have natural daylight, good ventilation and good air quality, says Blair.

Taking Action Within Schools

“There’s always more that schools or communities or households can be doing,” says Paul Lukaszek. He’s the manager of a “Green Schools” education program. “In terms of environmental actions at schools, there are a couple of different categories. There are things that the school district or the people who run and operate the buildings can do. And then there are things that individuals in the school buildings can do.

“The school boards… can have a huge impact on greenhouse gases by changing over inefficient heating systems with more efficient ones,” Lukaszek adds. “[And] they can buy more efficient buses that reduce greenhouse gases. They can green up schoolyards — plant trees, shrubs, that sort of thing.

“But at the school level… that’s where they do things like reducing the amount of waste coming out of the schools,” he says. “That’s a very popular thing… They’re reducing the amount of energy they use in ways that they can — turning off lights, lowering the temperature in a school by one or two degrees, keeping windows either open or shut depending on the weather.”

Other popular activities include recycling and composting programs. And many schools are turning some of their grass fields into landscape or vegetable gardens.

What if a school currently doesn’t have a green program? Where should they start? Lukaszek suggests they focus on three things: How much energy they use, how much waste goes out of the school, and how much water they use.

“The first thing they need to do is measure what they’re currently doing, and then think about ways of reducing each of those categories,” he says.

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