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It's Easy Being Green: Schools Remodel for Sustainability

Center for American Progress
May 13, 2009


Ken Kirkland, custodial manager at Lockport Township High School in Lockport,
Illinois, shows environmentally friendly cleaning supplies that janitors use to
clean the school.

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.

 

Promoting Green Building Design, Construction and Operation, Sustainable Living,
Clean Technology, Renewable Energy Resources and Energy Independence