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Gold Stars for Going Green

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Area Schools Help Themselves While Helping the Environment

Young students often get gold sticker stars for tasks done well — a special drawing or classroom cleanup. But the Washington area also has some big schools earning big awards for their own cleanup efforts as part of the eco-friendly education movement — earning gold stars for their innovative green endeavors.

At the head of the class is Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school with campuses in Northwest D.C. and Maryland. Serving students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12, this friends school’s new, earth-friendly middle school building has won a whopping seven environmental awards over the last three years.

Also winning accolades is the York County Public Schools District in southeastern Virginia near Norfolk. York is putting green technologies into every one of its schools, bringing in geothermal heating and looking toward future solar and green-roof projects — saving a bundle of money in the process.

Instituting these kinds of large-scale environmental changes costs big bucks at first, but pays dividends in the long run — something aging schools across the nation are coming to realize. It’s all part of a win-win arrangement that’s allowing area schools to help save the planet, while helping themselves to some vital savings as well.

Friendly Model

In 2007, Sidwell Friends Middle School was named one of the country’s top 10 green buildings by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Sidwell won four other AIA awards that year and received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, Platinum Certificate — the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, making it the first Platinum school in the country.

Designed by the architecture firm of Kieran-Tim-berlake, the middle school is a renovated environmental marvel, inside and out. The construction, for instance, used local, recycled materials whenever possible, including wood from wine barrels, marine pilings from the Baltimore Inner Harbor, and trim board made from wheat chaff.

The building also uses eco-friendly technology to harness the sun’s energy and bring light into every classroom while creating natural shade in the summertime. Photo-sensors manage lights, solar panels provide 5 percent of the building’s electricity, while solar chimneys run up and down the interior, helping with the heating and cooling. Wind chimes are even placed inside the chimneys so that students can hear the air moving through. When the windows open, air conditioning or heating systems ratchet down, and ceiling fans help to cool the air.

That’s just the start. The middle school features a green roof composed of a garden layer that channels rainwater and keeps the roof from spewing heat. Like other plantings on campus (where lawns have given way to woods, wetlands and 80 native plant species), it aims for biodiversity and provides real-life lessons for the science classes.

The school also has its own wastewater filtration system, the middle of which features a “constructed wetland” of terraces and a pond with aquatic plants. The end product reduces the school’s city water use by 93 percent. It even meets drinking water standards, though it’s only used in the cooling tower and toilets. Even the administration building on campus uses geothermal energy taken from the ground for its heat, noted Ellis Turner, the associate head of school.

Designed to be an environmental model, the middle school is open to visitor tours by appointment. Diplomats, government offi-cials and educators from other countries are among those who’ve taken advantage of the opportunity, Turner said.

In fact, Sidwell’s list of former students includes the offspring of presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, as well as media and academia notables. The school has also won an education diversity award, and 40 percent of the student body is made up of minorities. Current tuition is , 442 for the lower school and , 442 for the middle and upper schools. This year, 22 percent of Sidwell students will receive financial aid to the tune of nearly million.

Popping the Cork at York

The York County School Division was honored at a gala dinner held Sept. 25 in Washington by the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit that gave York Superintendent Eric Williams a Star of Energy Efficiency Award, one of seven awards handed out that night. The only education group among the honorees, York was praised for reducing its energy use, energy waste and pollution.

This November, York will receive another eco-award, this time from the Association of School Business Officials International, and six individual York schools have also received energy efficiency stars from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

How does a large public school district, with the inevitable bureaucratic tangles, fiscal fears and taxpayer base, achieve such green status?

Mark Tschirhart — York’s supervisor of resources and an energy engineer who worked as a nuclear electrician in the U.S. Navy — credited Richard Hixson, York’s former chief operations officer, with the kickoff back in 1997. Now retired, Hixson began by installing efficient lights in schools and advocating the use of geothermal heating and air conditioning.

It wasn’t easy though because geothermal start-up costs are high. “He had to convince the school board. He got them to look at how much it was going to save over the life of the system,” Tschirhart said, noting that geothermal sources of energy recoup costs in seven to 10 years and last 30 years.

So in 2000, the district started installing geothermal systems in all 18 of its schools, with six schools now done and one new school conversion each year. “It’s state of the art,” Tschirhart said proudly.

Such a system takes advantage of the fact that the earth retains heat. A building is cooled by transferring heat into the ground, using water flowing through pipes, and it is warmed by taking heat back from the earth to warm first the water and then the building.

In addition, York schools use energy-efficient lighting, with sensors and computer programs that adjust the temperature and light when rooms are empty, recording temperatures to calculate ideal start and stop times. Double-insulated windows and a three-person management team help make it all work.

And work it does: York schools have experienced an overall 40 percent drop in energy consumption. According to the district, the environmental impact has been the equivalent of removing 1,374 cars from local roads or planting about 200,000 trees in York County. Total savings: more than class="import-text">2008November.Gold Stars for going Green.txt million.

Stars of the Future

In 2007, the Alliance to Save Energy began a program called Saving Energy in DC Schools (SEDS), which now has 14 public and charter schools on board, as well as one private school, Gonzaga, an all-male high school in Northwest D.C. A student-centered effort, SEDS will provide educational materials and work with schools to enhance recycling and reduce energy consumption, while students learn to conduct classroom energy audits.

Another energy nonprofit, the DC Environmental Education Consortium, last year started School Garden Week to honor and encourage flower and vegetable plantings on city school grounds. Such gardens provide wildlife habitat, absorb storm-water runoff and offer science study opportunities.

Held this year in October, the event showcased 12 D.C. public schools with student-planted gardens and honored 80 more that have greening projects. “Environmental awareness starts with the youngest people in our city,” said George S. Hawkins, director of the District Department of the Environment. “School Garden Week presents great learning opportunities for students, families and educators alike.”

And clearly, all three groups are cultivating their green skills to everyone’s benefit.

To Lean More: Resources to help your school shine:

Sidwell Friends Green School Tour: www.sidwell.edu/green_tour/

York County Green Schools Guide: http://yorkcountyschools.org/greenYCSD/

Alliance to Save Energy: www.ase.org

LEED for Schools: www.usgbc.org

School Garden Week: www.dcschoolyardgreening.org

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014