Greening Schools

To America’s school boards,

What if I could you offer you a reliable path to:

  • Improve educational results
  • Improve student, teacher, and staff morale
  • Improve student, teacher, and staff health
  • Create jobs in the local economy
  • Improve economic performance in the near-, mid-, and long-term
  • Save money

Intrigued? You should be.

And, the great news is: that path already exists.

This is the simple reality of the benefits that come from serious efforts to green the school environment. Take the time to understand why greening should be core to your leadership. You have the opportunity to foster better educational performance, improve your community’s economy, help clean up the environment, and save money.

When approaching the analysis with an open mind, it becomes clear: greening schools might be the most cost-effective path toward improving school performance. In fact, it might be the only educational achievement enhancing path that is also “profitable” (due to energy and operational cost benefits) even without considering the secondary (job creation, student/teacher health) and tertiary (lower pollution levels, capacity building for energy efficiency, and other “green” across the country) benefits.

How could “greening a school” improve educational achievement? Let us look at just a few examples:

  • Energy Efficient Windows: Imagine your childhood classroom, the single-pane windows. When you sat next to that window in winter you might have been freezing but toward the end of the school year frying in sun relative to your classmate 10 feet away. Hmmm . . . perhaps eliminating that discomfort might have made it easier for you to focus on the teacher and your studies?
  • Daylighting: Obviously, human eyes have evolved with fluorescent lighting. Not! Consistently, tested performance in stores, factories, offices (also), and schools has shown improvements with increased daylight.
  • Non-Volatile Organic Compound Paints / Cleaning Products: Eliminating VOCs will reduce headaches, disturbing odors, and other distractions from academics.

Greening the schools, for many reasons, will improve student performance with healthier (driving lower absenteeism, as seen in the office environment) and more attentive students in an environment more conducive to learning. Let us explore, however, a fuller range of benefits:

  • Save money for communities and taxpayers: Quite directly, public infrastructure is one of the clearest places where the taxpayer should be concerned about the “cost to own” against the “cost to buy”. What is interesting is that achieving basic green level standards (which might cut energy usage by 25% or more) often can cost less than building “normally,” as good passive design might, for example, lead to improved heating/cooling system requirements and water efficiency (e.g., through water-less urinals). In addition, achieving quite aggressive standards might have direct financial payback times from energy savings of well under five years.
    Remember, just like your household, your local (and national) government is getting hit by rising energy prices. Spending the time and money to “green” schools will lower that burden for coming years and represents a hedge against rising energy prices. Green buildings also use less water (e.g., through water efficient fixtures and rainwater capture) and have reduced runoff (green roofing, good landscape design), lowering sewage bills.

But thinking only about direct savings sells greening schools short.

There are also indirect savings. Workers in “green” buildings have far lower absentee rates, which means lower costs for substitute teachers. Green buildings also have lower maintenance requirements and more longevity for components. For example, highly reflective (cool) or green roofs last roughly twice as long as asphalt roofs. This not only reduces energy costs, but also means that the roofs won’t require replacement before the entire school might require renovation 30–40 years in the future. The indirect benefits continue, however. Greening schools can:

  • Create employment: Renovating buildings and investing in infrastructure to lower tomorrow’s costs means replacing spending on energy, water, and health care with spending on labor and materials. These jobs (as per below) are unlikely to disappear when school renovation and construction is done, as these skills are directly transferable to other government infrastructure, businesses, and homes. And, this is a path to providing valuable work opportunities to businesses and workers who might otherwise be unemployed. These are jobs that will keep money in the community, rather than (in many cases) spending even more money to import energy from outside the community.
  • Reduce pollution loads: Reduced energy demand, by definition, will reduce pollution levels from generation. Greened buildings will also reduce urban-heat island impacts (e.g., through better roofing).
  • Foster capacity for greening the nation: Widespread greening of school systems across the country would create demand for architects, general contractors, and workers who understand how to build with energy efficiency and environmental consequences in mind. Local government officials (politicians, administrators, code writers, inspectors) would learn about the benefits and technical issues, while the general public will learn about energy efficient options. A Federal-Local-Private partnership to green schools will foster capacity and lower the barriers for the private sector to green businesses and homes. It will also create demand, as people get exposed to the benefits that accrue from this path. Finally, greening America’s building infrastructure is one of the most exciting and beneficial opportunities for tackling global warming.

Taking aggressive action to green schools is one of the smartest steps the nation can take to improve student performance, save energy, and, ultimately, preserve the environment; action that should go beyond bipartisanship to true unity of action as it is a win-win-win-win strategy. Think about all those benefits above; think about them holistically. If the impact on student performance were taken alone, greening schools would be a no-brainer, as all of the analysis to date points to improved educational achievement as one goes up the green ladder in school infrastructure. As stated above, greening Schools might be a profitable path for achieving quite real improvements in educational performance across the nation.

Imagine improving educational results, improving citizen health, improving the local economy. While saving money. America’s school board members should imagine . . .

Image Credit: By Mario Sánchez Prada (Flickr: School bus) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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