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Every day, 20 percent of Americans wake up, eat breakfast, and walk, bike, or drive to school. Once there, many students and teachers spend their days in classrooms with walls covered in toxic paint, breathing congested air, and squinting from inadequate lighting.
But as baby boomer-era school buildings become more and more outdated, many districts are building green schools to replace energy guzzling, polluted learning environments.
School construction is big business -- it makes up 27 percent of the US construction market. Building a school that complies with LEED standards costs 2 percent (or $3 per square foot) more upfront, but it's worth it -- green schools use up to 30 percent less energy, 30 to 50 percent less water, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent compared to traditionally built schools.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, the Fossil Ridge High School saves the district $100,000 each year in energy costs because of its green design, says Principal Dierdre Cook.
There's also evidence that green schools help educators teach and students learn. In a 2005 survey of executives that planned and built green K-12 schools, 71 percent said that students performed better and 72 percent said that there was less absenteeism compared to other schools. A report put out in October 2006 by the American Federation of Teachers and the US Green Building Council noted that Washington state saw absenteeism decrease by 15 percent in its first green school.
The 1,400 students at Forest Hills High School in Ada, Michigan eat lunch in the Great Hall, a common area with a floor-to-ceiling, elliptical south-facing glass window that floods the room with natural light. The sun's rays shine into the classrooms as well. "Students learn better in natural light," says Cook.
At least one study shows that to be true. In a 1999 study, Hershong Mahone Group, a building-efficiency consulting company, evaluated 2,000 classrooms in Oakland, CA, Seattle, WA, and Fort Collins, CO. They found that students with the most daylight progressed 20 percent faster in math, and 26 percent faster in reading than students in classrooms with poor lighting.
Indoor air pollution is another challenge. As many as 15,000 schools have poor indoor air quality that triggers asthma, causes headaches, and spreads airborne illness, especially among children, who breathe more air, proportionally, than adults. Forest Hills' has 30 percent fresh air recirculating in the classrooms, says Tom Walters, director of energy and construction management for Forest Hills, "to keep the kids healthier."
Still, green schools are missing one thing -- that 'new' school smell that comes from conventional paints, glues, and tile. Traditional classroom construction materials release chemical gas for years. Green classrooms use materials that don't emit chemicals, and also do not emit an odor. "People are used to a 'new building' smell," says Heinen, "but the ideal situation is not being able to smell anything at all."
When people arrive at the Fossil Ridge they see solar panels on the roof. The panels don't pull in a significant amount of energy, says Cook, "but [they make] a statement about what we want to teach the kids."
The newly green Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia was built up instead of out, shrinking its footprint and leaving enough room to build a soccer field. "I hope it will bring an idea that going green is not something that you have to make sacrifices for," says assistant principal Paul Jamelske. "It should be part of everyday living."