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America's Top 10 Green Schools

These schools are leading the way from the toxic one-room schoolhouse of yore to holistic and healthy classrooms.
 
 
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The early-American school kids swaddled with scarves to within a breath of suffocating as they hiked to the little red school house didn't know that their classrooms suffered from faulty insulation and bad air. But that's because no one thought much about the coal fire's smoke, the oil lantern's lung-clogging potential, the dank air's capacity to promote mildew and molds, or the contaminated water from the well.

That was then: before "green" and "sustainable" were "invented." And now? Looking at such nods to urban ecology as Manhattan's green-roofed Calhoun school, we see a sample of the neighborhood classrooms' new sustainability and a sign that we know -- and do better -- now. Or at least some of us do, like the state of Washington, which last spring took the lead in insisting that all school and public buildings go green, i.e. adopt LEED standards as rated by the U.S. Green Building Council.

To be sure, the sustainability experts can list and act on everything from toxic cleaning products to off-gassing materials; from pesticides and bad air that exacerbate asthma within to PCBs from old caulk without. And yet, the Green Schools Initiative, a multi-school effort to make schools healthier and more ecologically sustainable, found that the classrooms in half of America's 115,000 schools suffer from poor indoor environments. And even the school's surroundings can be hazardous: A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this July showed that pesticide spraying near schools has made children acutely ill, causing vomiting, wheezing and conjunctivitis. And, as others assuredly know, the indoor air and clean-up chemicals can do the same.

The Criteria

Herein, then, searching for better schools with better environments, we looked to the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, as well as a number of our own insights and impressions, to come up with criteria by which we measured our green school picks:

A. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building standards:

  1. Sustainable Siting -- site selection, alternative transportation, stormwater management, urban redevelopment
  2. Water Efficiency -- water efficient landscaping, water use reduction, innovative waste water use
  3. Energy & Atmosphere -- CFC reductions, renewable energy, reduced energy consumption, green power, reducing ozone
  4. Materials and Resources -- building and resource reuse, local materials, recycled content, certified wood
  5. Indoor Environmental Quality -- indoor air quality, CO2, ventilation, low-volatile organic compound (VOC) materials, thermal comfort, daylighting
  6. Innovation in Design

B. Healthy School Lunches: Does the school serve organic and/or locally-grown food for school lunches?

C. School-wide Green Initiatives: Does the school have a recycling program, carpool incentives, or any other initiatives that show that the school is taking action to be pro-environment?

D. Green Education: Is there an environmental curriculum?

E. School Procurement Policies: Does the school use recycled paper, organic cotton for sports uniforms, low-energy computers or other green products?

F. Contaminants:

  1. Does it use integrated pest management (non-toxic methods to deprive bugs of food, water and entry) to avoid exposing children to dangerous pesticides?
  2. Does it have wooden playground equipment treated with arsenic?
  3. Does it use "green" cleaning materials, such as cleansers that do not release hazardous chemicals?
  4. Has the school checked for lead paint problems or high lead levels in water?

G. School Green Spaces:

  1. Does the school have green spaces or gardens that students are part of, and do the students participate in greening their school?
  2. Does its landscaping including native plants (which also reduce the need for pesticides)?

Citing The Schools

While no school scored straight A's in all these criteria, we found ten that covered the field beyond our early expectations. Still, green schools can't rest on their laurels and solving some problems can lead to others. Spanking new schools in the outburbs may, unfortunately, preclude walking, shuttling students on long bus rides to distant buildings. "Because of transit access, even the oldest, most decrepit school in New York City probably has a smaller ecological footprint than the 'greenest' new school in the suburbs," says environmental economist Charles Komanoff of Komanoff Energy Associates (KEA), a New York energy consulting firm.

Happily, as green schools grow in number, they have begun to offer the proof in the pudding (or in the organic oatmeal) that with improved ventilation, better thermal control and enhanced natural lighting, students do better when tested academically.

The following then are our picks and prizes:

1. Two-handed Round of Clapping for Clackamas

The award-winning Clackamas High School in Oregon managed to earn a silver LEED citation for its 265,000-square foot green building on a 41-acre site in Oregon's kingdom of green. Linking architectural intentions to Amory Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute, which deals with complex, energy-efficient systems, Boora Architects secured a 44 percent reduction in energy consumption. By encouraging the students to join in creating full-scale mockups of buildings to test daylighting and ventilation through convection along with both sustainable energy and long-life materials, they added to the pedagogy and durability alike.

A landscaped courtyard at the building's entrance and surroundings lined with trees, benches plus a gas barbecue pit -- kept both bug-free and healthy with integrated pest management -- made the indoor-outdoor space amiable. The architects' ultimate goal: a Bauhaus-inspired green building that "literally runs itself," says Heinz Rudolf, lead architect. Add to that other ecological enhancements from daylit classrooms, to long-life expectancy brick and concrete slabs acting as thermal masses to reduce heating costs -- and their intent to last 100 years for a green centennial seems less than chimerical.

2. Bronzed School Bells for Ringing in New Ways

From solar panels on the roof, to soft-to-the-foot rubberized tot lots made from recycled tires; from skylights and light shelves in the classroom to sophisticated air-circulating systems, the new Michael E. Capuano Early Childhood Center in a dense Somerville, Massachusetts, neighborhood has secured a better, brighter future for its pre-Kindergarten to first graders. Orchestrated by architect Douglas Sacra, AIA, LEED AP of Cambridge's school-oriented HMFH Architects, Inc., the eco-labor included digging up and disposing of 11,160 tons of PCB-, mercury- and lead-contaminated soil on the grounds. Add to that a (clean) laundry list for reducing water, light and energy use and the building succeeds in attaining 41 percent less energy use than code.

With airy classrooms and walls lined with vivid tiles, the cheery design is as uplifting as the complex's greening. A grant from the state's Massachusetts Technology Collaborative funded the purchase of photovoltaic cells that create electricity from the sun which goes directly to the school's power supply. Add pleasant grounds and efficient systems, and this could be the ship that launched a thousand brighter kids.

3. "Aloha" for Whole Earth Holism

Some 164-years-old and getting greener, the Punahou School in Honolulu has inspired eco-change at the Case Middle School. Arup Engineering, LEED consultants for the job, improved their ecological approach by joining with an administration committed enough to complete a project ranging from light dimming sensors to saving kitchen scraps. Charged with erecting the largest private school in the US -- some nine buildings on a 75-acre campus -- Punahou's educators sought to personalize the process by providing easy access to its meandering landscape.

With extensive views to the ocean and the city, the school embraces the environment, framing space to allow more intimate meetings between students and teachers. An ice plant works during off-peak consumption hours to produce ice that will chill the air during the day. Coupled with solar energy from photovoltaic cells on the rooftop, the system reduced the school's energy cost by over 40 percent. Inside, student lockers are made of recycled milk cartons, with flooring of recycled rubber.

Outside, the school's irrigation system uses captured rain water from the rooftop plus an existing artesian spring. Large monkey pod trees were relocated and buildings were laid out to skirt the roots of old banyan trees. Delving into the native Hawaiian plants, students and the science department maintain a pesticide-free nursery on site, providing both classroom pedagogy and an historic re-blooming for the community that receives the plants.

4. Blue Ribbon for Secure, Salmon-Safe Surroundings

Raising salmon hatchlings for release in the campus stream is one way Sakai Intermediate's students find their place in the world. From the moment the five-year old school rolls its fifth and sixth graders to campus in buses retrofitted with particulate collectors to capture asthma-inducing small particles from exhaust, the building and teaching staff demonstrate that "the medium is the message."

Students gather data on the local birds, test groundwater and study nearby wetlands, which were protected by the architects who used a swale and limited impervious surfaces to prevent silting up the stream. Recycled materials with low-VOC finishes and oversize ducts that reduce mold-growth keep the indoor air fresh without relying on energy-intensive air-conditioning system. Finally, to preserve the area's natural resources, an integrated pest management program eliminated the use of pesticides, helping the school remain "salmon-friendly."

5. Five-star Primer on Elementary Excellence

Going beyond the ABCs of learning to advance the state of sustainable design, the new 800-student Third Creek Elementary School in the growing community of Statesville, North Carolina, strives on two fronts: It lets its students loose to learn from the natural world and heightens the green-ness of its interior space.

Moseley Architects of Virginia and North Carolina, acting with Bryna Dunn, director of environmental research and planning, earned a LEED gold certification for this three-year old K-5 school. Builders enhanced the greening with a reflective metal roof, waterless urinals, automatic shut-off faucets, extra insulation and low-E glazing. Native and adaptive plants were set in a pesticide-free, water-efficient landscape that requires no irrigation system. Healthy school lunches are complemented by an exterior where corn grows in the fields and butterflies drop by for a visit.

6. Double Gold Star for Cityside Global Village Venture

Hands at work and minds in thought mix in the multi-faceted 110-year-old Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco. Here, students alternate shop learning with classroom ABCs and incorporate the hands-on studies into the efficient use and re-cycling of materials. Eschewing the sight blight and cookie-cutter architecture of conventional class buildings, the independent school dug deep to fit new needs on a tight site in an eco-minded environment.

Solar panels atop green roofs that insulate and reduce runoff add to the energy efficiency, while the school has commissioned windmills to provide power and heighten the use of natural energy. Green cleaners are essential to its ecological interior and recycling was de rigueur in the design by Dwight Long for Pfau Architecture of San Francisco. Large windows and airy interior walkways create what the San Francisco Chronicle called an "intricate collision of classrooms and clearings [that] makes everything come alive."

Even school lunches live, it seems, with a vegetarian option, and Lick-Wilmerding was the nation's first high school to have a compost program for lunch remains. An underground energy-saving shop space insulated by the earth and sustainable materials like natural linoleum flooring and recycled carpet tiles fulfills headmaster Al Adams' aspirations to continue the progressive school's vintage green tradition on its city block.

7. Good Will Towards Green Citation

The Goodwillie Environmental School in Ada, Michigan, lives up to its name in this multi-award winning building. Designed for the Forest Hills School district, the LEED-certified project included students in studying its environmental impact during the building's creation. Under project architect Jim vander Molen and the firm's director of sustainability Jeff Remtema, the design was laid out to nestle between the woods and a restored pesticide-free prairie, allowing every class to open up to the outdoors.

Windows covering the entire South wall can be opened for ventilation while the dimmer lights and the heating system use the back wall and the floor of the building, respectively, as a thermal masses teaching 5th and 6th graders "the efficient use of resources," says Remtema. So does the overall design-with-nature: no A/C, doors that open to porches, a heating system powered by a geothermal heat loop and simplicity in the layout. Add natural ventilation, recycling and low- or no-VOC interior finishes -- and the all-embracing effort inspired parents to vote for bond issues to build three more with the same high standards.

8. Gold Binocular for Clear Vision

The Clearview Elementary School in Hanover, Pennsylvania, got the LEED gold for bringing out the basics -- air and light or, in USGBC's terms -- "features ... to enhance the learning environment through increased daylighting ...and better ventilation." Under architects L. Robert Kimball and Associates and John Boecker, director of High Performance Green Design, the project succeeded on many fronts.

Low-VOC paints, sealers, coatings and adhesives were used throughout the building while indigenous plants outside reduce the need for water and pesticides. From daylight design with photocell dimming, to CO2 sensors in classrooms, to underfloor air distribution, to 39 percent water consumption reductions and 20 percent recycled materials (65 percent made locally), to passive solar strategies, this state of the art structure got points -- and more points -- for performance. Outside, the lack of school buses eliminates the all-too-hazardous fumes from idling.

9. Green Measuring Tape for Tying Toddlers to Old-timers

Green go the generations in this ecologically astute, multi-age mix of Head Start and high school, kindergarten and seniors at the all-encompassing John M. Langston High School Continuation and Langston-Brown Community Center in Arlington, Virginia. The LEED-certified silver design by William Brown of BeeryRio offers a veritable punch list of green procedures from solar shading to electric vehicle re-charging.

Clerestory windows illuminate the rooms, and green awareness -- from reclaiming roof-top rain waters, to permeable soil that drains into a bio-filtration area, plus built-in cabinetry made of formaldehyde-free strawboard, low-VOC paints, carpets and adhesives -- kept high standards in indoor environmental quality and efficiency. In the end, the unique design process involved nightly meetings and talks with the Arlington County neighbors, users and civic associations, elevated the community's communication and created a handsome, multi-generational, green site.

10. As-Grows-the-Willow-Grows-the-Child Citation

Learning from the building is a primary part of the teaching process for youngsters in the kindergarten-through-fifth grade Willow School, a private school on a 34-acre former farm in Gladstone, New Jersey. Aiming to preserve the historic and ecological aspects of the place -- from making a clean building to offering occasional organic cooking classes in the school's farmhouse -- was part of the project.

Waterless urinals, metered faucets and low-flow toilet fixtures add to a punch list to please the toughest LEEDs point-puncher, as did low-E glazing on wood windows made from pickle-barrels, natural linoleum and cork flooring and re-used materials throughout. Even the food scraps are composted.

Nitty-gritty is the adjective for a design that collects rainwater from the roof in underground storage, treats it with UV light, uses it to flush toilets and pumps it into constructed wastewater wetlands with native plantings and fine root systems that help digest the effluent, returning the water through a sand filter to an aquifer. All of which won Princeton, New Jersey, architects Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects (FMG) a LEED gold rating. "The building block is the classroom," says FMG associate Heidi Fichtenbaum, but the indoor-outdoor connection is essential. Because the firm created a design that connects to the landscape, "it enables the building to interlock with the outdoor learning experience," she observes.

Runners Up

The number of schools across the country making environmental improvements is growing. While we don't have room to recognize them all, we want to clang our flatware to better lunch programs and better buildings. Innovative green buildings open up new educational horizons to students and teachers alike, while serving as examples to other school districts. Runners up for high performance buildings include:

  • The Calhoun School, New York, NY, for its abundant daylighting, water-conserving faucets and toilets and a green roof that reduces storm water runoff, attracts bird and insect life and provides space for organic herbs and vegetables for the school lunches.
  • Dalles Middle School, Dalles, OR, which stores ground water for cooling, uses wind-turbine ventilation and has substantially reduced energy-consumption.
  • Island Wood School, Bainbridge Island, WA, a low-impact building designed with composting toilets, a garden used to grow organic produce and a "living machine" greenhouse that treats waste water.
  • Serving organic and local foods is vital in setting kids' eating patterns early on, and particularly important for providing proper nutrition for their developing bodies and growing brains. Runners up for serving sustainable food and providing a healthy diet include:

  • The Calhoun School, New York, NY, for an Eat Right Now lunch program which offers children organic and local vegetables, eliminates frozen and canned foods and gives kids a chance to learn from Chef Bobo, a former teacher at the French Culinary Institute.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, Berkeley, CA, for their Edible Schoolyard program where students grow, harvest and prepare organic food while learning about botany, biology and the environment.
  • Ross School, East Hampton, NY for their Café which places top priority on serving local and organic foods (processed and stored for year-round consumption), uses no disposable items, composts all food waste, donates leftovers to a local rescue program and applies green means to clean.
  • The Children's Storefront School, Harlem, New York, NY, for their Slow Food Harvest Time program which provides children (many from low-income families) with cooking classes that weave in nutrition, math, geography and writing and treat their budding students with an herb and produce garden, farmer's market tours and lessons from local chefs.
  • Conclusion

    "It's not enough to be doing less harm," Heidi Fichtenbaum at FMG says. "We have to be doing something that benefits our world so they [the students] don't see this separation between the natural and built environment." That's advice that more and more schools are trying to inculcate in their students as they expand such green oases. "We have to go back to seeing ourselves as part of that environment," she observes.

    "Green building is taking off right now," Bryna Dunn of Moseley agrees, adding "People realize that this makes sense for so many reasons. It's healthy, it's smart, it's a responsible use of tax dollars [and] it raises test scores."

Jane Holtz Kay is a journalist and author of Asphalt Nation, among other books. She is currently working on Last Chance Landscape, a book on climate change for the University of California Press.