school infrastructure

No More Crumbling Schools, Our Kids Need Green Schools

It’s 2016 and there are still children that are not guaranteed a healthy, environmentally-sound educational building. Despite so much progress, we still have work to do. In 1995, Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities hauntingly shined light upon schools across America where sewage flooded the lunchrooms, ceilings collapsed on desks and science laboratories remained without heating or water. Kozol’s heart-wrenching chronicle reminds us that we have a choice when it comes to the state of our schools: Pay now, or there will be more to pay later. That was more than 20 years ago, and still, almost two-thirds of schools have building features such as air conditioning and filtration that are in need of extensive repair or replacement. This equates to 14 million students, or over a quarter of all students in the United States, learning in inadequate environments that may be polluted with substances such as mold, mildew and harmful particulates.

Green Schools Hold Promise

The disparaging health of many schools has been well-documented. To address indoor air quality, resource usage, chemical exposure and the instructional design of schools, a fairly new movement, called the green schools movement, is working towards creating more equitable school buildings for all. The Green Schools National Network convenes the largest conference gathering of professionals and students who are working towards green schools, the Green Schools Conference & Expo, which touts a simple vision statement: “All schools and school districts are green, healthy, and sustainable.” In many schools, facility costs are second only to personnel costs and can far exceed what is spent on textbooks, other supplies and activities critical to learning. Therefore, when we create schools that are green—resource-efficient schools—there are potential savings to be made that can be redirected towards student learning. The United States Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools estimates that the average green school can save $100,000 annually on operating costs, or enough to employ an additional teacher. The clearly-documented benefits of green schools are not only financial, either. Turner Construction’s fall 2005 report released a survey of 665 organizations involved in the building sector. Of those involved with green schools, over 70 percent reported that green schools reduced student absenteeism and improved student performance. So, with so much evidence supporting green schools, why hasn’t the idea caught on ubiquitously? Understandably, schools are being pushed to improve everything that makes them a school: improve the leaders, improve the teachers, improve the test scores, improve the curriculum—improve, improve and improve. With so much pressure from so many angles to be the absolute best, not everything can be prioritized, unfortunately. When it comes to social change of any kind, one of the most effective ways of getting a topic prioritized is to create more meaningful dialogue about that topic. For students, educators, school administrators, nonprofit and corporate partners, and elected officials looking to understand best practices and add their voice to the green schools movement, the upcoming Green Schools Conference & Expo in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will convene like-minded individuals this spring. Collaboratively and collectively, our voice can make a statement to the world. Over 60 million students, teachers and staff walk into a school building every week, and these walls serve as more than just a physical building, but also serves as a model for the world we hope to create. Green schools hold promise that our world can be green, healthy and sustainable, but we will only make progress if we continue to make green schools a top priority.
Charles Orgbon III is the Founder of Greening Forward and advocates for youth voice and leadership.

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