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Conscious Classrooms

Is it better to learn in a green school?At Tarkington School of Excellence on Chicago’s Southwest Side, the students not only learn in the school's classrooms. They also teach. Tarkington’s students lead tours of their school building, the first Chicago Public School to earn the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. They inform visitors about the building’s “green” features, including its rooftop gardens, window blinds that automatically adjust based on the amount of natural light in classrooms and carpet and building materials that do not exude harmful chemicals.
   Vincent Iturralde, principal of the Tarkington School of Excellence, says that in addition to his school’s green building, its curriculum focuses on the environment, especially in the areas of science and social studies. Middle school students study the evolution of technology and how it affects our environment. Older students write persuasive essays about the importance of being good stewards of the planet. And according to Iturralde, Tarkington’s green curriculum will continue to grow.
   “Because we’re a green school, we’ve gotten a lot of attention,” Iturralde says.
He says he gets many applications from educators who want to work at Tarkington because of its LEED certification and green curriculum, and these teachers are helping to develop the school’s green curriculum even further.
   Joseph Clair, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s Chicago Chapter board chair and green schools advocate, says that by teaching green curriculum and getting students excited about recycling, schools can “create sustainability natives”—children who grow up with a deep-seated care and concern for the environment.
   Since Tarkington opened in 2005, other green schools have opened in Chicago and nationwide. As of early February, the USGBC listed 131 certified schools in the country, and there are more in the process of applying for certification or being constructed. In August of 2007, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the Energy Efficient School Construction Act into law, which requires new school buildings in Illinois to receive certification from the USGBC, the Green Building Initiative, or the Capital Development Board’s Green Building Advisory Committee.
   Experts agree that more research is needed in order to evaluate the long-term measurable effects of green schools on the students that attend them. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students and teachers who spend their days in green schools report fewer sick days and higher productivity and academic achievement. Iturralde says that Tarkington’s Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) scores have gone up five percent each year, and his school has 97.6 percent attendance (in comparison, Chicago Public Schools had a 91.3 percent citywide attendance rate for the 2006-07 school year).
   “Kids start to give a darn” and test scores improve in most new schools, Clair says, but this seems to be especially true in green schools. Still, green schools are relatively new and more research is necessary to determine their effects on the health of students and staff.
   Even though there is not much quantitative evidence to prove the benefits of green schools, it’s difficult to make a convincing case against eliminating potentially harmful chemicals and conserving energy in our schools. Besides constructing a new LEED-certified school building, there are several ways to make a school green, or greener than it already is.
   Clair says that many green changes do not require a major investment of time or resources. Replacing cleaning chemicals with green cleaning systems and incorporating environmentally friendly pest management practices are two major ways to eliminate potentially harmful chemicals from schools.
   The cost of adopting green cleaning programs is not that significant, says Mark Bishop, deputy director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, because the school already has existing cleaning and pest-control budgets that can be applied to different, environmentally friendly products. Over the course of a full budget year, the cost difference is usually negligible.
   Parents can encourage their child’s school to adopt more environmentally friendly practices, experts say. They can question the safety of the building materials, cleaning and pest-control products and indoor air quality at their child’s school. Individuals can ask their community schools to adopt practices as simple as prohibiting school buses from idling near schools, which exposes children to exhaust fumes and wastes fuel. Parents can also inquire about their child’s school recycling policies and building maintenance plans. And it seems the more interest in taking care of our schools and engaging students, the better.

For more information:

EPA Tools for Schools:  epa.gov/iaq/schools/

USGBC’s Build Green Schools Initiative:  buildgreenschools.org

Healthy Schools Campaign: healthyschoolscampaign.org

Published: April 04, 2009
Issue: 2009 Spring Green Issue