- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

Students at Maryland’s Poolesville High School last year analyzed the cost of keeping unused computer monitors on for one hour. They then extrapolated that figure to an entire day, and before they knew it, they stumbled on a way to save the district nearly $5,000 a year.

It’s what the green schools movement is all about — saving some green by making school districts think green.

The term “green school” means different things to different people, says Anja Caldwell, Green Schools Program manager with Montgomery County Public Schools.

A green school can be an energy-efficient one, where, say, geothermal systems leverage the Earth’s natural heating and cooling properties to cut the taxpayers’ heating bills.

Such a label also could refer to a building with energy-saving light bulbs, environmental friendly paint and furniture without formaldehyde.

Ms. Caldwell says some school districts are wary of going green.

“It’s not the standard yet, but it’s getting there. With school districts, typically there’s a different set of criteria, like durability. Anything going into the school has to be tried and true,” she says.

Ms. Caldwell says the green-school movement began in the late 1970s but erupted in earnest over the past five or so years.

She recalls a time when classrooms were built without windows, perhaps to cut down on distractions. She says recent studies show that students perform up to 26 percent better when exposed to indirect daylight.

Ms. Caldwell says some of the lessons do more than instruct. Montgomery County students, after measuring the performance levels of various buildings in regard to air flow, temperatures and electricity usage, helped the district save nearly $700,000 last year with their recommendations for energy conservation.

Billie Bradshaw, the Poolesville physics teacher who initiated the computer-shut-off program, says such lesson plans engage students in “real-world activities.”

“Not everyone is an athlete,” says Mrs. Bradshaw, who also teaches in her school’s Global Ecology Studies Program. “Through the Green School Club, I can instill the same kind of motivation and self-worth that you get on the athletic field.”

Merrilee Harrigan, director of education with the D.C.-based nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy, says engaging students with green activities is having an impact.

“When we get students to do an energy audit of their school building and identify how much they can save … they see the results. It’s very energizing. it means something,” Ms. Harrigan says.

The green-school movement’s early days were a bit misguided.

“People would close the ventilating units. That’s not good for air quality. We really know how to do it well now,” Ms. Harrigan says.

Karen Anderson, Montgomery County’s Green Schools Program manager, says any existing school can be operated with more sustainability.

Opportunities exist to save water, resources, paper and energy, Ms. Anderson says.

“How better to understand what you want in a new school than to operate your existing school more efficiently?” Ms. Anderson says.

In Montgomery County, interest in environmentally concerned buildings runs high, especially with science teachers eager to piggyback their lessons onto the changes.

“We provide students with professional energy-analyst tools. They collect real data, then they make sense of it and they recommend strategies,” she says.

Arlington County environmental planner Joan Kelsch says Arlington’s sole green school, the new Langston-Brown Community Center, embraced the environment before the first brick was put in place.

Eighty percent of the materials sitting on the site where the building was to be erected were recycled before construction began, Ms. Kelsch says.

The building, completed last year, serves both the Arlington School District and regional interests such as programs for seniors.

Langston-Brown continues that green heritage, chiefly through its savvy water and light management.

All the rainwater hitting the roof runs off into two 11,000-gallon cisterns. It’s then used for landscape watering. The parking lot’s pavement is pervious to water, allowing water to move through it and recharge the groundwater levels.

The building itself maximizes the amount of natural light reaching it via an angled roof, which allows for clerestory windows.

These panes permit light to enter the building but cut down on direct sunbeams, which can be distracting. The same windows let those very beams in during the cold winter months to boost the heating system.

Building components also were chosen with students’ health in mind, she says. Materials were selected without glues or other adhesives that contain volatile organic chemicals that could disturb people with asthma or allergies.

The center’s gymnasium also reflects the green spirit, featuring recycled rubber flooring.

Even the bathrooms include conservational planning.

The boys’ rooms feature waterless urinals, a move that saves tens of thousands of gallons of water a year, not to mention money saved by avoiding plumbing installation and future repairs.

Ms. Kelsch doesn’t deny that green building can be more costly than standard school construction, but the difference between the two is smaller than people many think, she says.

Such schools cost, on average, 2 percent more to build, but difference often is made up within a couple of years, she says.

“That’s the biggest hurdle we have to get over, that it costs more money,” she says.

Alexandria residents are getting a crash course in green-school economics with the proposed new T.C. Williams High School. The building, with construction slated to begin next month, is projected to cost $92 million.

The school, estimated to cost about 1.5 percent more than a traditionally built school would, is expected to feature recycled materials, energy-efficient lighting and a system to convert rainwater into water for toilets and irrigation.

Environmental group Alexandrians for a Green T.C. says the added fees will be repaid within three years because of lower operating costs.

Ms. Kelsch hopes other districts build on the lessons learned at Langston-Brown. The arithmetic performed to make the center as green as was achievable can be applied to other schools without doing any heavy lifting.

“A lot of the costs are in the learning curve,” she says.

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