With its new "Green Ribbon" program, announced in April, the Department of Education will honor public schools of all levels that are taking steps to be environmentally conscious. States will begin nominating schools this month, and the awards will be announced sometime this spring. Many schools are catching the green bug, even if they weren't originally built to be sustainable—but all schools can take easy steps to lower their carbon footprints, experts say.
"Pretty much any school can save about 30 percent of [its] energy bill with behavior modification," says Ted Bardacke, a senior associate at Global Green USA, a nonprofit focused on sustainability and environmental awareness. "Just having a green building does not a green school make."
Schools need a culture change, Bardacke says. By keeping thermostats set at 68 degrees in the winter and 74 degrees in the summer, diligently turning off lights, and turning off computers at night, schools can make a huge impact in their energy usage.
Yesterday, Bardacke's organization awarded $130,000 in the Green School Makeover Competition to the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin to help it become more sustainable. The school has been open since 1857, long before environmental issues came into the national consciousness.
A green culture "can be done whether you've got the newest, greenest, hippest school built from the ground up, all the way down to the leakiest, most inefficient building," Bardacke says. "That sort of behavior modification is a no-cost option that every school ought to pursue."
[Learn how colleges are going green.]
Few states have standalone environmental education requirements, so teachers, especially at the more than 180 environmentally focused high schools nationwide, have to get creative to bring their message of sustainability into required subjects such as math, science, or English.
A science class might grow algae to convert to energy, while an English class might design a recycling program, says Brigitte Griswold, director of youth programs at The Nature Conservancy, a worldwide conservation organization with more than 1 million members. "It's a challenge to have teachers meet state standards and implement them into the existing curriculum," she says. But the demand for green schools continues to grow.
[See photos of 10 eco-friendly college campuses.]
"There's a burgeoning movement around this," Griswold says of environment-themed schools. The Nature Conservancy's LEAF (Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future) program has built a network for teachers at green schools to share lesson plans.
In those schools, being green is second nature. But in a large majority of schools, Global Green USA's Bardacke says, there are plenty of problems.
For instance, janitors may dump separated recyclables and trash into the same receptacle at the end of the day, he says. Temporary, or trailer classrooms, that are installed at overcrowded schools are often made of cheap materials that aren't energy efficient and with materials that may cause asthma. And pesticides and pest control sprays used on school grounds often contain chemicals that can be hazardous to the environment and student health.
Examining a school's efficiency and environmental friendliness is a teaching opportunity, Bardacke says. Math classes can calculate a school's energy and water use, science classes can find out where their trash really goes, and English classes can write proposals to implement green practices.
Bardacke says schools can see how they are doing with an environmental Operations Report Card, which is provided by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, an organization that certifies effectively designed school buildings. At green schools, he says, "there is a desire and commitment to use green improvements as an educational tool."