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Green Schools Save the Environment, Money

Green schools, which are built to rely more on natural resources or have extensive recycling and conservation programs, may sound expensive or a lot of work, but actually they save districts money in the long run, some experts say. Included: Descriptions of recycling, conservation, and energy-saving programs.

Green schools are sprouting across the U.S., as districts and states look for more environmentally friendly, energy-saving building designs.

Green schools get their name either from design, practice, or both. Some are designed to maximize natural resources, like the sun, so they are more energy efficient, while others get green by using more recycled products and having extensive school-wide recycling programs.


"It would just be criminal not to use all the solar power here," says Bob Becker, staff architect for the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Public Schools.

Schools can earn an official green designation from the U.S. Green Building Council. Schools and other buildings that meet certain criteria can receive a rating in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

Green schools can save a district a significant amount of money in energy costs, according to some designers. The architectural firm Mazria, Inc., Odems, Dzurec in Santa Fe, New Mexico, designed Edward Gonzales Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is featured on the firm's Web site. Mazria, Inc., only designs buildings that lower energy costs by 50 percent from conventional schools.

Just designing a building to maximize use of sunlight and other natural resources can yield the 50 percent savings, even in parts of the country with much less sunshine than New Mexico, Edward Mazria, the architect for Edward Gonzales School, told Education World.

"It has to do with the location of the building, its orientation, building forms, and how the building is shaded and ventilated," he said.

Other technological adjustments can increase savings, Mazria said, but he tries to keep his green buildings low-maintenance. "I try to use strategies that operate themselves."


Edward Gonzales Elementary School opened in August 2004. The building relies on passive solar energy; windows are designed to let sun pass into all sections of the building to minimize the use of electrical lights, said Bob Becker, staff architect for the Albuquerque Public Schools. A system automatically shuts off classroom lights at certain times of the day, when students are scheduled to be out of the rooms. Lights also can be controlled manually.

"It would just be criminal not to use all the solar power here," Becker said.

Specially designed blinds in classrooms are lowered to block and reflect the sun when the rays are at their strongest. A system of evaporative coolers, which is less expensive than central air conditioning, cools the building, Becker said. The system works by blowing cold air across moist material, which cools the interior air. "It's real efficient for an arid climate," he said.

The other key to these designs is getting double use out of window glass; insulating buildings when the weather is colder, as well as letting in sun for light and heat, Mazria said.

Some recycled materials were used in the building's construction. The school also has extensive glass, aluminum, and paper recycling programs.

The green design elements added about $30,000 to the design costs for Edward Gonzales School, said Rigo Chavez, a district spokesman. The district expects to easily make up the money through energy savings. A state grant helped pay for the additional design costs.

"We're looking to make the schools more efficient," Chavez told Education World. "The costs for heating, lighting, and cooling are increasing. We wanted to take advantage of the sun to heat and cool the building. We're hoping to incorporate those design elements as we build more schools."


"The classroom recycling program models behavior that hopefully carries over to the homes of students and staff," says Greg Hyde, recycling program coordinator at Oregon City (Oregon) High School.

Some states also have their own green school organizations. Oregon schools can earn green designations by following guidelines from the Oregon Green Schools. The Oregon program focuses more on recycling, reducing waste, saving energy, and conserving water than on school design, said Eileen Stapp of Green Schools Oregon. "Construction is not as large a part of this as we would like," Stapp added. "Some schools are LEED certified. Sustainability is a large part of the program."

More than 200 schools in Oregon are in the program. Each school must have an education coordinator to oversee the recycling programs and train faculty and students about the school's recycling and conservation efforts, and assist other schools in going green, she said.

Students and faculty members also can gather to share ideas and celebrate their accomplishments at the annual Oregon Green School Summit.

The pluses for participating schools include lower water, energy, and waste disposal costs. Then there is the satisfaction that comes from helping conserve resources, Stapp said.


Oregon City High School, a two-year-old school, was designed with energy conservation in mind. The school's conservation features include electrical lighting that dims when the amount of outdoor light passing through the windows increases; motion detectors on the classroom and bathroom lights, so they turn off after rooms are empty; and bathroom sinks and toilets that turn on and off and flush automatically to save water.

The school's extensive volunteer recycling program focuses on awareness and education.

"Being a Green School provides you with a tremendous amount of support," said science teacher Greg Hyde, who coordinates Oregon City High's recycling program. "Our coordinator, Eileen Stapp, along with Liz Braman at Clackamas County Recycling Partnership, have been very supportive with ideas and materials. Being a Green School means that you are part of a network of schools working towards the same goal. The annual summit is a great way to meet people and get new ideas on how to make a big job easier."

The school has about 2,300 students and more than 100 staff members, and, on average, staff and students recycle more than 4,000 pounds of paper and 2,000 pounds of cardboard per month, Hyde told Education World. Hundreds of tin cans, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles also are collected, as well as batteries, from the classrooms and cafeteria.

Hyde works with custodians and teachers to make sure that when the trash is taken out at night, the recycling stays behind. "We have a staff member who works with special needs students, and they collect the recycling from the classrooms," he continued. "I work with students to sort recyclable materials collected from the classrooms. I am also working with Earth Club students to promote education and awareness of our recycling program."

The thousands of pounds of recycled materials collected each month save the school money that would have been spent on garbage hauling, Hyde said. The school's garbage hauler picks up the school's recyclables for free and all the revenue from the recyclables goes back to the school. Paper recycling generates about $150 per month for Oregon City High, and that money goes back into the recycling program and the school's Earth Club.

Science teachers also incorporate environmental topics into the curriculum, according to Hyde. Each biology class does an ecology unit during which consumption and other human actions, as well as their impact on biodiversity, are discussed. The school also offers an environmental science course that deals more directly with recycling topics. During this unit, all environmental science students participate in the recycling program and learn about the recycling process. Environmental issues also are covered in a course called Chemistry in the Community.

"These things happen with individuals who care about the environment and want to promote awareness," said Hyde. "The classroom recycling program models behavior that hopefully carries over to the homes of students and staff. Participating in the Green School program provides both recognition and support for our recycling efforts."


Green school organizations and architects like Mazria are trying to get out the word about the benefits of green schools. More school administrators need to know that green schools do not cost much more to build and produce large savings, Mazria said. "Most school boards are not aware of the energy savings."

All new schools -- as well as other new buildings -- need to move to greener designs or the environment will continue to pay the price, Mazria added. "Every time a district adds a building, the district uses more energy, requiring more power plants using more fossil fuel and producing more greenhouse gases," he said.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 04/20/2005
Last updated 02/22/2010