Campuses moving to forefront of green building, education

by Jill Tucker
April 20, 2007
San Francisco Chronicle

Just a few years ago, the idea of a "green school" probably referred to the color of paint on exterior walls.

Even as the world debated the best ways to slow or stop global warming, schools were often off the radar. Saving the Earth lagged far behind education's top priority of raising test scores.

But that's changing.

Today, schools are increasingly going green -- planting gardens, installing solar panels, following environmentally sound construction guidelines, using eco-friendly cleaning products and educating students on environmental issues.

Ultimately, all this provides a healthier learning environment, which in turn improves student learning, educators have found. As an added bonus, energy costs go down and the Earth is better off.

"I think that (schools) are realizing being green can save them money and help them improve test scores," said Deborah Moore, executive director of the Berkeley-based Green Schools Initiative.

The green schools movement, however, is fragmented, with individual schools or districts addressing energy waste and environmental inefficiency in schools, but few statewide efforts doing the same, Moore said.

"Schools, like any other institution, use lots and lots of resources," she added. "That means there's a big potential for savings there."

Paper, for example, produces a huge stream of waste flowing out of schools and into landfills -- contributing to methane, a greenhouse gas singled out in the fight against global warming.

Moore's group estimates Alameda County schools and colleges use more than 11,000 tons of paper every year -- the equivalent of 200,000 trees.

"In America every year, we throw away approximately 1 billion trees' worth of paper," Moore said. "Schools are a good chunk of that."

Serving millions of children for more than six hours each day, schools also consume a lot of energy as well. Across the country, K-12 schools account for 7 percent of all energy used by commercial buildings, costing a total of $6 billion every year, according to a 2005 report by Moore's organization.

Slowly, schools are starting to ramp up, realizing initial monetary investments can pay off down the road, helping to save money and the environment.

San Francisco Unified, for example, has implemented a range of green policies and programs.

The city's newly built Dianne Feinstein Elementary School was constructed using an energy-efficient design with sunlight pouring in through windows and drought-resistant landscaping in the schoolyard. The playground surface is made from recycled products, and the hallways are cleaned with eco- and kid-friendly products.

Elsewhere, eight of the district's 100-plus schools have installed solar panels.

But for many school districts, it ain't easy -- or cheap -- being green.

Building schools to high environmental standards costs more, adding at least a 5 percent premium to construction costs.

Last year, however, California made it easier for districts to build green schools by allocating $100 million of a $10 billion school facilities bond to help districts make up the difference.

One of the most common and easiest ways schools are going green is by planting gardens; about a third of California's public schools have one.

This year, the state Legislature allocated $15 million to help create and support gardens, with $2,500 available for each of 6,000 schools.

"Instructional school gardens can nourish students' bodies and minds and also help students develop a better appreciation for sustaining the environment, maintaining our food supply, and prompting stewardship of our Earth," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said in announcing the grants in February.

Those were heady gardening goals coming out of Sacramento, but for a class of San Francisco fourth-graders, their school garden on a recent spring day was about something far simpler: salad.

The 9-year-olds at Willie Brown Jr. Elementary stooped over wooden planter boxes sitting on a plot of land at the back of the school, pinching off the green shallots shooting up from the dirt on the far side of the garden before moving on to red kale and mustard greens nearby. The collard greens, however, weren't ready for picking -- a previous crop having fed a pesky mole. Miner's leaf was in abundance, growing like the weed it was, and it was added to the salad.

For many of the children, the school's garden gave them their first opportunity to bury their hands in dirt to lure life out of the ground.

"There are kids who come and see their first worms here," said Miriam Feiner, one of the school's two garden coordinators, whose positions are funded by a $50,000 annual garden grant.

With a plastic strainer filled with leaves -- some purple, some green, with small edible flowers thrown in for good measure -- the students mixed an oil-and-vinegar dressing and divided up the bounty.

Some liked it, some didn't. It was noted that at top-tier restaurants, such a salad would cost perhaps $10. The children didn't seem to believe that; they had grown the stuff out of dirt, after all.

"It's free and tasty," said Teriana Standifer, 9.

The students dumped leftovers in a nearby compost bin, where it would be recycled rather than dumped in a landfill -- a hands-on lesson in ecology, environmental conservation and good nutrition all in one.

Yet the big picture of it all was a bit elusive to Teriana, who wasn't quite sure how the school garden would help stop global warming -- a problem she knew was "melting the ice in the North Pole."

Her advice for preventing global warming?

"Don't smoke," she said.

It was a good start.

jtucker@sfchronicle.com