Oh no, not ANOTHER back-to-school story! If you're cringing at this perennial assignment, here's how you can turn it into a cool environmental story.
Across the country, the "green schools" movement has been gaining momentum. Chances are some schools or school districts in your area are implementing various environmental measures. What they're doing (or not) and why are equally good fodder for local environmental stories. This story becomes even more important if local schools have experienced environmental problems in the past.
Example: Here's an Aug. 26, 2007, green schools story from the Austin American-Statesman.
The gist of the green schools movement, according to many experts in facilities, education, and environmental health, is that eco-friendly schools tend to provide healthier, more effective learning environments - better indoor air quality, less off-gassing from indoor furnishing and finishings, better lighting, etc. This is especially important for K-12 students, since kids are especially vulnerable to certain types of environmental toxicants and pollutants. This issue is also important to school districts seeking to minimize legal liability and costs related to environmental health risks.
Energy and water efficiency, waste reduction, and recycling are also important aspects of green schools, since these measures can reduce long-term costs for cash-strapped school districts.
And in the bigger picture, schools involved in a broad array of eco-friendly initiatives have more opportunities to provide hands-on, day-to-day experience and lessons about environment and health issues. These can be incorporated into classroom projects for kids and teens.
GET A BASELINE. How healthy and eco-friendly are your local schools? EPA offers the Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool(HealthySEAT), software that schools and concerned parents or citizens can use to evaluate specific schools. Ask local school officials whether they've run this program. If not, and if they don't plan to, you can use it. Try downloading the software (Windows only). Reporters might be able to use at least portions of it to turn information gathered from local schools into a quantitative assessment - an interesting enterprise project in which you could involve local parents, universities, environmental experts, or other community members.
- EPA press: Enesta Jones, 202-564-7873.
- More EPA healthy school resources: Healthy School Environments and HSE Publications.
EPA also offers a Tools for Schools action kit for indoor air quality and a school IAQ awards program. Are any current or past award-winning schools in your region?
An alternate toolkit for gauging the eco-friendliness of schools is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for schools, from the US Green Building Council.
According to USGBC, "School buildings represent the largest construction sector in the U.S. - $80 billion in 2006-2008. Buildings overall are also responsible for 38% of CO2 emissions in the US, a major contributor to global warming. ...It costs on average less than 2% or about $3 per square foot more to build a green school than to build a conventional school - and the payback occurs within one year based on energy savings alone."
- More USGBC green schools resources. Press: Taryn Holowka, 202-828-1144; or Ashley Katz, 202-742-3738. Find USGBC members near you.
- The Council of Educational Facility Planners International's healthy schools initiative offers many resources. Also, CEFPI's annual conference (Oct 6-9, Toronto) will address many green school issues. CEFPI public affairs: Art Gissendaner, 480-391-0840 x21. CEFPI chapters might help you find local experts and case studies, as well as identify top local school environmental issues.
- Local governments are getting into the act, too. In June 2007 the US Conference of Mayors passed a resolution to support and promote green schools (p. 19). Included in this resolution: "[We urge] Congress to support federal authorization and funding of K-12 green school demonstration projects throughout the country as well as commit additional research funding to evaluate, understand and enhance the environmental, economic, and health benefits of green schools." USCM press: Elena Temple, 202-309-4906; or Ione Hess, 202-257-9797.
- The Natural Resources Defense Council's Green Squad site shows K-12 students and teachers how to use their school as an environmental teaching tool. NRDC expert on children's health: Gina Solomon, via press contact: Craig Noble, 415-875-6100.
- The Healthy Schools Network (a partner in NRDC's Green Squad project) also offers many resources on schools and the environment. Contact: Stephen Boese, 212-482-0204. Check out HSN's green cleaning guide.
- Don't forget about the schoolyard! The consulting firm EcoSchool Design specializes in environmental issues for school grounds. Sharon Danks.
- In 2004, the National Renewable Energy Lab published an influential report, "High-Performance Schools: Affordable Green Design for K-12 Schools," which can provide useful context on green schools.
Not everyone favors the green schools approach, however. The most common objections arise on financial grounds. As the Statesman article (cited above) reported, "Saying that building costs would skyrocket, the Fast Growth School Coalition, a group of 124 Texas school districts, helped defeat a bill during the most recent legislative session that would have required all school construction to fall in line with standards set by the US Green Building Council."