We have spent the last two years traveling the country, filming ordinary American citizens in all types of communities striving to create healthier school environments for their children by adopting a green schools curriculum. What we discovered is that after decades of failure and frustration, the green schools are energizing hundreds of schools across the country and lending a coalescence and maturity to the environmental movement.
We saw how schools are saving considerable sums of money by converting old energy systems to new. At Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio, administrators saved $500,000 on annual energy costs after installing an efficient heating and cooling system. In one year since the conversion, the rate of money saved shows that they will pay off the cost of the retrofit within six years. Those savings mean more resources for students.
In Los Angeles, the Maywood Academy High School uses solar tubes throughout the school to provide a natural source of lighting. Not only was money saved at schools converting to natural daylight, but educators told us students exposed to natural daylight had increased test scores.
Alison Suffat-Diaz, who founded the Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, California, and her staff are dedicated to having students totally immersed in a green curriculum. Every aspect of the school is green and serves as a learning tool: the landscaping outside the classroom; arts classes, where students use recycled materials to create art work and fashion (the student fashion show is a highlight of the school year and is so innovative, it’s being adopted by other schools); math, science, English, history, social studies, all are taught through a green prism. The result: The school, located in a low income, working class, racially mixed neighborhood, sends 95% of its students to colleges or universities.
In Elgin, Illinois, it was Deb Perryman, a teacher, who convinced her school leadership and the entire community that a new approach to teaching was needed. A high school environmental sciences teacher in a working class community, Perryman said she pities teachers who try to teach her subject only from inside the classroom. Perryman and her supporters fought to keep a piece of adjacent school land next to the Fox River from going to developers and urged the city of Elgin to turn that empty land into an outdoor environmental sciences lab. Now Perryman and her students have a living eco-system classroom right outside their door.
Still, in much of the country, some educators are resistant to these changes: In Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Judy Dent, principal of Patuxent Elementary School overcomes resistance at the outset. She opens each interview with a prospective teacher by asking “Are you willing to get in the dirt with our children?” She said most teachers are leery of getting dirty and fighting off bugs, but once they see the principal and her staff outside in the dirt and try it themselves, they embrace the concept. The results are twofold; increased learning for students and their teachers.
The most important lesson from our journey is that all this is doable. We found inspiration and hope in the communities we visited. They have laid the groundwork for the rest of us. The tools are there, the lesson plans have been created. All that’s left is for teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders to take a first step. Our children’s future depends on our active support of green schools today.
Harry Wiland and Dale Bell
Guest Columnists[email protected]