At the LEED gold Manassas Park Elementary School, Manassas Park, Va., classrooms are named for species that live in the forest.
A green school offers a healthful environment conducive to learning while saving energy, resources and money. Getting new and existing schools to deliver these results is an imperative that cannot be overlooked, but often those responsible for creating, planning, building and maintaining sustainable schools don't know where to begin.
The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council works to make sure people have the resources and information to make necessary changes. Its mission is to achieve green schools for everyone, and offer strategies that every school can use to become a greener learning environment:
1. Start where you are.
No education institution is too far behind to start improving the buildings where students learn. A green school can be new or old; any effort to make the school more healthful, more efficient and more conducive to environmental learning is a gain for all involved.
The Recovery School District of Louisiana (RSD) in New Orleans is one example of a district that, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, had no choice but to start where they were: far behind. Over the past five years, the staff has created a culture of renewal from academics to facilities. They set a goal of LEED silver certification and 30 percent energy savings for all of their rebuilt and renovated schools, which will total more than 80 schools. In addition, they have begun a rigorous indoor air quality program, hired an energy manager, entered into a public-private partnership to install large solar arrays and trained capital project management staff in LEED and green building. Healthful, high-performance schools are for every community and every child, no matter where you start.
2. Ready, set, start?
It's hard to know what to fix if you don't know where you stand. If a school wants to establish a recycling or composting program, understanding the kinds of waste being produced is helpful so the right items can be targeted. If schools want to save energy, administrators need to know how much energy is being used daily and where the biggest inefficiencies are. Having the right information upfront enables schools to measure success, and showing measurable success is the best way to get others on board.
For help measuring and tracking school waste streams and resource use, consult the EPA Waste Wise program. Kid-friendly energy audit tools are available through the Alliance for Climate Education, National Energy Education Development and the Department of Energy's kids activity website.
3. Benchmark energy use.
Any good facility manager will say that making one-off improvements without assessing the building as a whole is not a good idea. Yet, administrators sometimes forget the importance of assessment when it comes to energy use and efficiency. ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, a free, online program, has become the benchmarking tool for more than 28,000 schools: School and university leaders enter data and compare performance, while taking into account the age, square footage and amenities (such as kitchens and computer labs) of each school.
Other software programs and cloud-based services also can be helpful to monitor and track utility usage.