Sierra Club – Going green: Good work for schools

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By Jody Benson

Summer is for kids outside. The reality, however, is that for most of the year, most kids are inside, and much of that time is spent inside schools. It is within these walls, taught by committed teachers, that the future is formed.

So what does being in school have to do with the environment?


If we want to ensure that our current quality of life extends into our students’ future, we must ensure our schools are healthy indoors, and incorporate energy-saving “green” elements. And we must include “green” in the curriculum to teach our children today how to choose for a sustainable tomorrow.

Green schools do the following:

Enhance learning, student performance and teacher satisfaction;

increase overall health;

decrease water and energy costs;

reduce the school’s environmental impact; and

create sustainability natives for the future.

There are sustainability natives – those to whom conserving energy and the environment are second nature – and sustainability immigrants, those for whom conservation is as difficult as a second language learned in adulthood.

The goal of greening is to create a generation of sustainability natives studying within a habitat of energy-conserving buildings, beautiful grounds and a low-waste-generating campus. Their learning is enhanced by low-noise classrooms that are well lit, and with excellent indoor-air quality and temperature.

Kids grow up knowing what it costs the earth for a simple act of not turning off the water or a light, as well as how to orient a home for solar, and what building materials to use for highest energy efficiency and lowest environmental impact.

We must meet the needs of today’s children without sacrificing those of the next generation. Going green is work. People must care, or at minimum understand that we must change our energy-consumption habits. The Green School Initiative began because society recognized the need to educate students to conserve dwindling resources, and to think about what their role might be in developing technologies for a future world with an equivalent quality of life that uses far fewer resources.

Did you know that 20 percent of the U.S. population, or 55 million students and 5 million faculty, go to school every day, and most in substandard buildings? In the market overview, that’s 27 percent of energy use, or $52 billion. The average school’s age is 40 years (parts of LAPS and Aspen are more than 50 years old), and of these, 25 percent are substandard or even dangerous, labeled “unfit to breathe” with mold or off-gassing interior building/furniture/paint/carpets.

Although they will cost up to 5 percent more to build, as long as properly used and maintained, the green premium is paid back within a few years with an average of 33 percent less energy and 32 percent less water. And greening will positively affect both learning and health.

Increasing indoor air quality starts by using low-emitting materials, having excellent ventilation and ensuring mold-prevention.

Then there’s the quality of light and acoustics. Did you know that the number-one detriment to learning is acoustics? Teachers need to be heard. Students need to be in a place where they want to listen. While adults can guess at missing words, children find it much harder to fill in the gaps and their educational development can suffer. They lose interest. Classrooms with poor acoustics can result in even those children with normal hearing being unable to make out what is being said in class. Good acoustics and good lighting increase test scores, and decrease off-task behavior.

Finally, by understanding how our consumerism affects nature, we will create a “cradle-to-cradle” consciousness in which we care that whatever we make as waste stays with us somewhere on the Earth throughout our whole lives.

Green schools are a start in guaranteeing each child a future that still includes summer walks in nature.

Jody Benson is the member of the Los Alamos chapter of the Sierra Club.