How do we help our kids do better in school?
Like many Americans, I’ve followed the debate over this issue for years without a clear understanding of what the answer is.
But here’s something I learned this year. There’s an important point missing from the public debate, or at least from the portion of it I’ve heard: Students and teachers alike perform better in green schools. And school districts can save money by building them.
I've always thought of green buildings as being about saving energy and water and reducing the amount of waste that goes to our landfills.
The contribution green schools make to improving our kids' education is something I hadn’t heard about until I sat in on a presentation by Dan LeBlanc, a LEED Accredited Professional with YRG Sustainability Consultants of Boulder.LeBlanc reviewed the findings of a four-year old study by Gregory Kats, managing principal of Capital E, a national clean energy and green building firm, who concluded green schools provide “an extraordinarily cost-effective way to enhance student learning, reduce health and operational costs and, ultimately, increase school quality and competitiveness.”
Failure to invest not financially responsible
The benefits of green schools are so great that “failure to invest in green technologies is not financially responsible for school systems,” says Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, in a quote published in Kats’ study.A few examples of what Kats found:
- School districts in Chicago and Washington, D.C., found that “better school facilities can add 3 to 4 percentage points to a school’s standardized test scores.”
- A study of schools in the state of Washington found a 15% reduction in absenteeism and a 5% increase in student test scores among students attending green schools.
- Students moving from a conventional school to a new green elementary school in Pennsylvania experienced substantial improvements in health and test scores – including a 19 percent increase in oral reading fluency scores.
- Students at Third Creek Elementary in Statesville, NC, “improved from less than 60% of students on grade level in reading and math to 80% of students on grade level in reading and math” after moving into a new green school.
For example, Chris Bergmann, a science teacher at Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School in Fort Collins, doesn’t have statistical evidence but says he can see a difference in student attitudes and performance since moving from a conventional school to Kinard, one of Poudre School District’s six green schools.
“It’s hard to put a number on it,” Bergmann says. “But I’ve noticed a change in the students and how positive they are.”
He attributes part of that to the school’s natural lighting. “With our lighting, the students are in touch with the outside world,” Bergmann says. “Other schools feel like you’re getting out of a movie theater almost into a complete other world.”
Another benefit of working in a green school, Bergmann says, is that the school itself becomes a teaching tool. “It really is a helpful thing. There’s all this great science and technology that goes into how our school works. Using it (the school) as a teaching resource is great.”
A great example of how the green technology at Kinard has become teaching tool is Kinard C.A.R.E.S. (Community, Action, Results, Environment, Service), which Bergmann runs. It’s an environmental club that gets students involved in a variety of environment-friendly activities.
“Kinard C.A.R.E.S. has grown extraordinarily,” Bergmann says. Last year, 50 students applied for the 25 slots available in Kinard C.A.R.E.S. There are 90 applicants to be in the club next year.
With Bergmann’s help, the students in Kinard C.A.R.E.S. produced a series of online videos about their school and their own efforts to live up to the school’s potential for being environmentally friendly. There are videos about the school’s lighting, its geothermal heating system, and its vermicomposting program – using worms to turn paper, fruits and vegetables into compost. And more.
If you have a few minutes and are so inclined, I recommend you browse through the students’ videos. You’ll see kids who are engaged in their school – while learning some very cool stuff. And you’ll learn some cool stuff about a green school and how it works.
One reason the schools have become teaching tools is that the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University held a two-day workshop last year for teachers from the Poudre School District's green schools to show them how to use their buildings as a tool for teaching science, energy, math, health -- and even art.
"We're onto something really good and important," says Brian Dunbar, executive director of the institute.
Green office buildings offer same benefits
Green office buildings provide the same kind of benefits as green schools. And many of the same barriers exist to getting them built – concerns about cost and/or ignorance about the benefits.Kats cites a 2005 survey of 665 senior executives that found “executives are discouraged from undertaking green construction because of concerns about cost, and a lack of awareness and available information on the financial benefits of green buildings.”
That may be changing as more companies begin building green facilities.
Xcel Energy is the process of moving most of its Colorado employees into a LEED Platinum building at 1800 Larimer Street in Denver.
“It’s a real nice atmosphere,” says Noel Mattison, project manager for the move.
Like almost everyone I’ve talked to about green buildings, Mattison points to the natural light as a major benefit.
“Because there are floor-to-ceiling windows around the whole perimeter, there’s lots of natural light,” she says. “Studies have documented that lots of natural light reduces eye strain and headaches and can create better moods for people. Just that in itself increased productivity.”
But much of Mattison’s enthusiasm focuses on the new building’s ventilation system.
“All of the mechanical and electrical is under the floor,” she says. One benefit of that, she says, is that air circulates from air to ceiling instead of pushing down from ceiling vents as it does in many conventional office buildings. That, in turn, means there’s up to 35 percent more fresh air flowing through the building. And every employee will have their own air diffuser to control the amount of air flow in their work space.
“Studies we’ve read show fresher air leads to increased productivity and reduced absenteeism due to illness,” she says. “One study in particular of a Lockheed Martin building in California documented a 15 percent increase in productivity. We’re not saying we’ll achieve 15 percent. But the numbers are out there. We’re looking forward to experiencing some amount of increase because of the improved environment.”
Mattison says the new office space also has been designed to increase collaboration among employees. That, too, is expected to lead to increased productivity, she says.
And, Mattison adds, the company expects the new building to be a strong recruiting tool. “We think it will help us attract and retain top talent,” she says.