Remember dioramas from first and second grade? Last fall I was invited to attend the opening of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Lessons for a Green and Healthy School” exhibit, a giant, life-sized, walk through diorama on how to create a green environment in schools. Located at the Public Information Center of US EPA’s Region 3 offices in Philadelphia, what I learned there about sustaining a healthy school for students, teachers, and community was exciting…and I heard it from the students themselves. [How to Build A Healthy School]
The Green Ribbon Schools Program is a joint endeavor between the U.S. EPA and U.S. Department of Education. The program honors schools and districts across the nation that are exemplary in reducing environmental impact and costs; improves the health and wellness of students and staff; and provides effective environmental and sustainability education, which incorporates STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), civic skills and green career pathways.
A healthy green school is toxic free, uses sustainable resources, creates green healthy spaces for students and faculty, and engages students through a “teach-learn-engage” model. Examples of greening techniques include the using building materials for improved acoustics; installing utility meters inside the classroom as a concrete aid for teaching abstract concepts in math; and incorporating storm water drainage systems within a school’s landscape design to teach and practice water conservation. What are some environmental concerns to address when you are growing a healthy school?
- Asthma and asthma triggers (indoor air quality)
- Asbestos and lead (especially in older buildings)
- Carbon monoxide (from old furnaces, auto exhaust)
- Water fountains
- Chemicals in the science lab (think mercury)
- Art and educational supplies
- Managing extreme heat
- Upkeep of athletic grounds
- Mold, lighting fixtures
- Waste and recycling
Now more than ever, we must educate new generations of citizens with the skills to solve the global environmental problems we face. How can we have a green future or a green economy without green schools?
Benefits of green schools
1. Cost/Energy Savings: “Daylighting” or daylit schools achieve energy cost reductions from 22 percent to 64 percent over typical schools. For example in North Carolina, a 125,000 square foot middle school that incorporates a well-integrated daylighting scheme is likely to save $40,000 per year compared to other schools not using daylighting. Studies on daylighting conclude that even excluding all of the productivity and health benefits, this makes sense from a financial investment standpoint. Daylighting also has a positive impact on student performance. One study of 2000 school buildings demonstrated a 20 percent faster learning rate in math and 25 percent faster learning rate in reading for students who attended school with increased daylight in the classroom.
2. Effects on Students: Students who attended the diorama presentation in Philadelphia expressed a number of ways how their green school changed personal behavior and attitudes. One young lady spoke of how a green classroom helped her focus and stay awake. Another student said being in a green school made them happier. There was more interest in keeping their school environment cleaner by monitoring trash disposal, saving water by not allowing faucets to run unnecessarily, picking up street trash outside the school, sorting paper for recycling, and turning off lights when room were no longer in use. Some students went so far as to carry out their green behaviors at home. Small changes in behavior and attitude such as these are the foundation for a future citizenry who will be better stewards of the environment.
3. Faculty Retention: Who wouldn’t want to be a speech-language pathologist in a green school? Besides, there would be so many opportunities for a therapist to embed environmental concepts in to their session activities. Think how a quieter environment would foster increased student attention. How about having the choice of conducting a small group session in the pest-free landscape of the school yard? Research supports improved quality of a school environment as an important predictor of the decision of staff to leave their current position, even after controlling for other contributing factors.
How to make your school green
- Have a vision for your school environment. You can start small at the classroom level or go district wide. Focus on one area or many (healthier cafeteria choices, integrated pest management, purchase ordering options, safer chemistry lab) Maybe you already know what environmental hazards affect your school – if you do then start there.
- Get a committee going. It helps to have friends. Is there someone you can partner with? School nurse, building facilities manager, classroom teacher, PTA, students?
- Conduct a school environmental survey. This doesn’t have to be complicated, you can poll your colleagues, or discuss at the next department meeting, or over lunch. If you like, check out EPA’s “Healthy SEAT – Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool” for ideas.
- Have a plan. Select a time frame, short term first and use it as a pilot to evaluate whether a green school is possible. Pick something small to work on.
- Monitor and evaluation your progress. It’s always a good idea to collect data but it doesn’t have to be too sophisticated. Use “before and after “ photos or video student testimonials.
- Embed the green environment into the student curriculum and activities. Create speech lesson plans with green materials or photos of your green school project. Growing Up Wild is an excellent curriculum for early childhood educators.
Anastasia Antoniadis is with the Tuscarora (PA) Intermediate Unit and works as a state consultant for Early Intervention Technical Assistance through the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. She earned a Master of Arts degree in speech pathology from City College of the City University of New York and a Master’s degree in public health from Temple University. She was a practicing pediatric SLP for 14 years before becoming an early childhood consultant for Pennsylvania’s early intervention system. Her public health studies have been in the area of environmental health and data mapping using geographic information system technology. You can follow her on Twitter @SLPS4HlthySchools.