Hubert H. Humphrey Elementary School in Staten Island, N.Y. became recognized as a Green Ribbon School this year for its array of STEM-based learning programs where students can do projects from growing gardens to building solar-powered vehicles.

Hubert H. Humphrey Elementary School in Staten Island, N.Y. became recognized as a Green Ribbon School this year for its array of STEM-based learning programs where students can do projects from growing gardens to building solar-powered vehicles.

Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Education

Providing a healthy, safe environment for children promotes higher student performance, improved health among students and staff, and higher staff satisfaction, as recent studies show. And while building better-performing, greener schools can improve these outcomes, building green schools and greening existing buildings generally requires more up-front costs. When school districts face tight budgets and expanding student populations, what prevents healthy schools from slipping as a priority?

The National Building Museum hosted a panel discussion last week to examine current strategies in schools to guarantee access to daylight and healthy air quality, promote the use of green cleaning products, and reduce costs.

Claire L. Barnett, founder and executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, a national nonprofit environmental health organization, stressed that “children are not just little adults”—they are biologically more vulnerable to their environmental conditions. Plus, children cannot articulate or express health exposures. Similarly, she said, “schools are not just little offices," and the approach to building green residences or office buildings is not entirely applicable to building green schools. Schools are usually more densely occupied than residences or offices, for example.

Woodrow Wilson High School in D.C., a Green Ribbon School, features <span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0);" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">two green roofs and 30,000-gallon storm water tanks.  A 75-year-old coal- and oil-burning three-story power plant was converted into a highly efficient smaller-scale natural-gas power system that saved so enough space for the school to convert one story into a fitness center. Wilson reduced almost 75 percent of its water use through a redesign. </span>

Woodrow Wilson High School in D.C., a Green Ribbon School, features two green roofs and 30,000-gallon storm water tanks.  A 75-year-old coal- and oil-burning three-story power plant was converted into a highly efficient smaller-scale natural-gas power system that saved so enough space for the school to convert one story into a fitness center. Wilson reduced almost 75 percent of its water use through a redesign. 

Credit: Courtesy of Edward Cupaioli (OSSE)


Barbara Crum, a Washington, D.C.–based principal for Perkins+Will, explained several design techniques that her firm uses to cater to student health, such as the use of natural light, improved acoustics, open green space, and appealing stairwells. In terms of improved building chemistry for indoor air quality, Perkins+Will focuses on improved mechanical systems and the use of sustainable materials, such as bipolar ionization systems, UV filtration systems, and carbon dioxide monitoring. The firm relies on designing with features that won’t require substantial maintenance.

“When the green movement started about 10 to 15 years ago, there was a perception that it was very expensive to build green schools,” said Tom Roger, vice-president of Arlington, Va.–based Gilbane Building Company. The upfront costs to building green schools may be greater, but he estimated most schools see payback within five or 10 years through reduced energy costs.

Crum argued that costs continue to be the biggest challenge in convincing school districts to go green. “School districts start with the budget and end with the health benefits and the health benefits are usually the selling points,” she said.

Green schools not only benefit students and staff, but can also be advantageous for entire communities. Crum discussed the possibilities of shared geothermal fields, photovoltaic arrays, harvested rainwater, farm-to-table programs, and joint private and public facilities.

Bedwell Elementary School in Bernardsville, N.J. was recognized in 2013 as a Green Ribbon School. Bedwell has built a successful environmental program, focusing on recycling, composting in the garden, and teaching sustainable practices in the curriculum.

Bedwell Elementary School in Bernardsville, N.J. was recognized in 2013 as a Green Ribbon School. Bedwell has built a successful environmental program, focusing on recycling, composting in the garden, and teaching sustainable practices in the curriculum.

Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Education


The final panelist, U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools director Andrea Falken, highlighted the collaboration across federal agencies for the common goal of promoting sustainable schools. The Department of Education, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality created the Green Ribbon Schools program in 2011 to showcase schools—old and new, private and public—that have adopted sustainable practices. Since 2011, 156 schools have been recognized in over 30 states.

The program evaluates schools on three pillars: reducing environmental impact and cost; improving wellness among students and staff; and providing effective sustainability education. Falken explained that Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools as old as 1926, because “there are practices that every school can do to improve in these three areas,’ she said.

Kenston High School, a Green Ribbon School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, installed a solar thermal booster that heats water and reduces emissions and a wind turbine that produces 1.3 million kW hours per year, about 70 percent of the school's annual energy consumption.

Kenston High School, a Green Ribbon School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, installed a solar thermal booster that heats water and reduces emissions and a wind turbine that produces 1.3 million kW hours per year, about 70 percent of the school's annual energy consumption.

Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Department of Education


The recognized schools also range across demographics, with about half of the awards going to schools that are considered disadvantaged, according to Falken, defying the stigma that green schools are located in the wealthiest areas. “These schools may not be well-resourced, but they are resourceful." Crum added that she finds that parents with lower socioeconomic status are often more involved and outspoken on the environmental issues for their children than parents with higher socioeconomic status.

When asked how environmental sustainability can remain a priority when school districts are faced with issues like youth violence and the destruction of climate change, the panelists agreed that along with budget, these are the primary concerns among administrators. Crum explained that the use of glass in schools is not only greener, but also safer, because it provides a more complete transparency of surroundings. The topic of climate change, she said, is more difficult to address, because they are so many unpredictable factors.

The panel discussion is part of the Green Schools exhibit, on display at the National Building Museum through January 5, 2014.