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[IMGCAP(1)]Want a way for schools to improve test scores, reduce asthma and perhaps even be able to hire an extra teacher or two? One of the best ways to do so is for the school building to go green, say major studies. Now, the nation’s mayors are uniting to help.

In mid-October, Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami and Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle announced the formation of the Mayors’ Alliance for Green Schools, a coalition of mayors seeking to promote the benefits of green schools in their communities. Developed in partnership with the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the Alliance will work to accelerate implementation of programs supporting the 2007 US Conference of Mayors resolution calling for green schools for all children within a generation.

“Schools are one of the fastest-growing sectors,” looking at sustainability, says Rachel Gutter, senior manager-education sector of the USGBC, Washington, DC. Since LEED for Schools was established in April 2007, the council has seen an average of one to two new schools applying for certification every day, with the total doubling each year. The US currently has approximately 126,000 schools for grades K-12, and about 1,000 now have registered for or achieved some level of LEED certification.

While the earliest schools began implementing sustainable initiatives around 2003, Interest has increased greatly in the last two years, noted Anja Caldwell, an architect and president of Bethesda, MD-based Ecoipso LLC, a consultancy that helps government agencies and businesses meet LEED standards.

“People are much more aware of how buildings affect us, and our children,” Caldwell says. “We do want to protect our young.”

Children actually breathe more air relative to their body size than adults, and are more susceptible to toxins, making them even more vulnerable to pollutants. The result of spending hours daily in a building with poor environmental quality includes higher absenteeism, increased respiratory ailments, increased sick days, lower test scores, and increased medical costs, says “Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits,” an October 2006 review of 30 green schools for the USGBC by Gregory Kats, managing principal of green technology firm Capital E.

Air and water quality are always of primary concern. But other pollutants, such as sound, should be considered as well, Gutter says. “You have to build to a minimal acoustical performance,” Gutter explains. Children cannot read lips as adults do, she continues, and are more prone to ear infections, affecting their hearing at times. “If I’m a child and missing every tenth word, I’m missing the lesson.” Daylighting also helps visibility for audiovisual materials.

Schools that have gone green have seen a distinct improvement in health and achievement, the report adds. Students who moved into the LEED Gold Clearview Elementary School in Hanover, PA–which opened in 2002–experienced a 19% increase in average Student Oral Reading Fluency Scores compared to the former facility. Other schools have reported significant absenteeism declines.

[IMGCAP(2)]Other studies also support the benefits of green schools. A fall 2005 Turner Construction survey of building executives found that over 70% reported that green schools reduced student absenteeism and improved student performance. And a study of more than 21,000 students by Fair Oaks, CA-based energy efficiency consultancy Heschong Mahone Daylighting found a dramatic correlation between daylit school environments and student performance–including 20% faster progression in math and 26% faster progression in reading.

Those benefits do come at a price. The cost of greening a school is approximately $3 per sf above normal expenditures, according to Kats’ report. But the financial benefits–which include energy savings, teacher retention, asthma reduction and increased earnings–total $74 per sf, for a net benefit of $71 per sf. A savings of $100,000 per year in operational costs is enough to hire two new teachers, buy 200 new computers or purchase 5,000 new textbooks, says the USGBC in its school-oriented web site, www.buildgreenschools.org. Other benefits not quantified in the Kats report include reduced sick days, improved power quality and reliability, and lower maintenance and operational costs.

Now, legislation is supporting the green effort. Ten states–Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio and Washington–and the District of Columbia, have passed legislation that requires that all new schools to be green, Gutter notes. Much of the legislation is very recent, and results won’t be known for some years.

The problem is how to pay for the improvements. Schools are largely a one-way street in terms of finances–they absorb money, but don’t generate any. For many schools, tight budgets can preclude the more sophisticated green technologies such as solar panels.

“You have to find creative ways to green a school without money,” Caldwell says. Fortunately, Caldwell adds, some of the green solutions for schools are easily detected, easy to accomplish and relatively affordable. Perhaps the easiest is to follow your nose, particularly regarding paint and decorations.

“The nose is a protective organ. If a building smells bad, get out,” Caldwell says. “I just visited a school that smelled like a Barbie doll from the carpet. That’s so easy to fix.”

But more can be done. Quantifying the benefits should help the Mayor’s Alliance, which also will work to create public-private partnerships with local businesses to allow schools to undertake sustainable building techniques such as installing solar panels or green roofs, help districts green their existing facilities through the Clinton Climate Initiative’s K-12 Retrofit Program, and encourage state legislatures to create policies and incentives for green school improvements.

The initiative is made more challenging by the fact that few mayors have control over school boards, so their role often is a role of coordinator, peacemaker and cheerleader. “There are different types of structures, and in our case, the mayor cannot mandate,” [green building], says Robert Ruano, director of grants and sustainable initiatives of the City of Miami. “But he can influence quite a bit, and mayor has been able to work with the school board.” Developing a rapport with the schools has helped the city to tap into Federal and state funds to assist sustainability initiatives, and also to build excitement and awareness.

Assistance is available in some districts and states. For example, in April, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law Senate Bill 208, the High Performance Buildings Act. The law requires all new construction and renovation projects that receive state funds to achieve LEED Silver certification or two Green Globes, an online building assessment tool from the Green Building Initiative. Between 2009 and 2014, the state is required to pay for half of the additional cost for public schools to meet the standard.

The trend is even continuing on the Federal level. The Green Schools Caucus, formed in the House of Representatives in late 2007 by Reps. Darlene Hooley, D-OR, Michael McCaul, R-TX, and Jim Matheson, D-UT, is the fastest-growing caucus on Capitol Hill, Gutter says, as all realize both the short and long-term goals of green schools: a healthier, more productive environment for students and staff, and a greater, life-long concern about the global environment. “Twenty percent of America [including students, teachers and staff] goes to school every day,” Gutter says. “This is a bipartisan issue, a uniting issue. Everyone wants healthy kids.”

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