For the last few decades, the green-schools movement has worked to integrate sustainability into education, with noteworthy advancements in new K–12 school design and construction. The challenge has been making these small steps systemic. How do multiple schools or entire districts, particularly those serving low-income communities, rehabilitate the status quo with an ecological ethos?

In February, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a gathering of educators at the Green Schools National Network Conference in Denver that the crusade had reached a coming of age. “Your movement is helping not only to change the culture of schools in our communities for the better, but also the culture in our department. That’s a big deal,” Duncan said. He was referring, in part, to the new Green Ribbon Schools program launched in 2011 after extensive input from educators and sustainability experts. Green Ribbon School status recognizes exemplary action in three areas: reducing environmental impact and cost, improving health and wellness, and providing effective environmental education.

The first round of 78 Green Ribbon Schools was awarded this year, and, together, the schools represented a broad picture of what it means to be sustainable. Half were in underserved student populations and all included community service and environmental learning in their curricula.

Take Roadrunner Elementary in Phoenix, for example. With no budget for a new facility, the school instituted behavioral changes and retrofits to reduce energy consumption in its 1970s-era building by more than 35 percent. Its dedication earned the school a LEED Platinum–certified building that was constructed pro bono by the nonprofit Green Schoolhouse Series, which identifies deserving schools in low-income communities and donates a LEED Platinum school valued at about $6 million. The schools are made possible through corporate donations from product manufacturers and by corralling top talent for an all-volunteer team. In this instance, the building at Roadrunner, called the Safari schoolhouse, was designed pro bono by Burt Hill, a Stantec Company, and includes landscaped gardens, a community and resource center, a small library, a kitchen for food, and a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classroom sponsored by DeVry University.

Andrea Suarez Falken, director of the Green Ribbon Schools program, says that the winners defy the perception that green schools have to be costly or that they only serve rich, suburban students. “These schools are using green practices—safe and healthy facilities, wellness practices, and hands-on learning—to reduce the achievement gap,” she says.

Rachel Gutter, director of the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, believes the criteria for this award to be “the single most important thing to the green movement. The Department of Education basically created a definition of what it means to be a green school,” she says.

The Center for Green Schools is also working to bring green practices to more buildings. In 2008, the center launched its Green Schools Fellowship, which places sustainability officers in school districts in an effort to foster wide-ranging change. The fellows are fully funded for three years and help galvanize disparate district efforts into a cohesive green program. Farah McDill is the fellow in the Sacramento City Unified School District. When school superintendent Jonathan Raymond committed to greening the 11th largest school district in California by allocating $5 million for building improvements, it was McDill’s job to help determine how to administer those funds. She partnered with 15 schools and asked students to conduct green audits and present their recommendations at a science fair exhibition, where a panel of local professionals awarded funds. “I was so proud that all teams made recommendations that were site specific and very reasonable,” McDill says. “The most common request was for solar tubes and daylighting.”

Involving students and teachers in the design of school facilities is becoming more prevalent. The Bertschi School Living Science Building in Seattle is a 1,426-square-foot science classroom designed pro bono by KMD Architects to meet the Living Building Challenge 2.0, which means it is net-zero energy, net-zero water, nontoxic, and supports its surrounding community. In addition to these ambitious structural and social needs, in the beginning stages of the project, architects Stacy Smedley and Chris Hellstern asked the school’s fifth graders for a list of what they believed should go into a green building. “Students said they wanted a river in the classroom, so there’s a river under the floor made of the rainwater that flows to the cistern. They also wanted something green inside, so we made a green wall, and then we made it functional so that it cleans the graywater,” Smedley says.

At the Bertschi School, all disciplines use the classroom as a teaching mechanism. The rise of project-based education—where teachers ask students to solve problems rather than memorize rote instruction—has more educators looking to make structures a pedagogical tool. At the LEED Gold–certified High Tech High Chula Vista in Chula Vista, Calif., “one of the big goals was to use the school as a teaching tool,” says Maxine Ward, architect at San Diego’s Studio E Architects, the firm behind the project. The school was an AIA COTE Top Ten Green Project in 2011.

The building also offers a lesson in customizing the traditional modular school structure. To save time, Studio E was asked to build the high school remotely while the site was being prepared. “We had to work with the modular company to customize the type of skin, the glazing, the interior finishes,” says John Sheehan, AIA, principal at Studio E Architects. “It was a learning process for everyone.”

School boards and owners are also open to learning about sustainable possibilities, says Brent McClure, AIA, of Cody Anderson Wasney Architects. His firm, based in Palo Alto, Calif., recently completed two LEED Platinum–certified projects in Redwood City, Calif., including the Sequoia High School gym, which came in at a building cost of just $425 per square foot. Photovoltaic panels generate 30 percent of the building’s peak energy consumption, while clerestory windows with translucent, high-performance glazing reduce lighting needs by 70 percent.

McClure says that school clients can’t always justify the long-term payoffs of green buildings when they are so strapped for cash, so his firm takes a pragmatic approach when pitching sustainable solutions. “We get them excited about concepts that they can relate to and that are common sense,” McClure says. “With the gym we asked: What if we could design it so that you could always have the lights off during the day and not have glare from lights on the basketball courts? We get clients excited about programmatic aspects that, in turn, create high-performance buildings.”

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson writes about architecture and design from her hometown of Baltimore.