New "Toolbox" Can Make Your School Leaner and Greener

Too many kids are learning in toxic environments, but even existing buildings can make changes that benefit the earth-- and the people who'll inherit it

Green Classroom

Image courtesy of Steve & Jemma Copley via Flickr.com

There was a time when carting a plastic lunchbox to your high school cafeteria was a popularity death knell. The ubiquitous paper bag was more fashionable, but in our new, green-conscious era, maybe it's time for the lunchbox to make a comeback. Though schools probably can't impose outright bans on paper bags, they can make efforts at generating less waste. Without the resources to rebuild every school out there with the most sophisticated green technology, however, the pertinent question is: How can pre-existing school buildings become more environmentally friendly?

Ihab M.K. Elzeyadi, a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, is tackling that question with a new invention: A Green Classroom Toolbox. The Toolbox is geared towards architects and planners who want to retrofit aging schools with lower-impact practices. Although there is a limit to what can be changed in a pre-existing structure, small, targeted changes can, cumulatively, make a dramatic difference. These changes, Elzeyadi argues, are crucial. There are 20 billion square feet of existing U.S. public schools, and 40 percent of them have 15 million students learning in poor environmental conditions. "I am alarmed by the state of our schools," Elzeyadi says. "We have 20 billion square feet of existing space that are in worse conditions than our prisons, and this is where students are expected to learn."

The Toolbox includes a checklist of twenty best practices schools can employ to ease their environmental impacts, as well as a guide that links the practices to findings on student health and academic performance. One of the project's additional goals is to encourage more research on the effect green buildings have on the people inside them. If we understand that, Elzeyadi says, "we can have triple benefits for people, profit and planet." The Toolbox also contains a prioritization guide, complete with comparative analyses. Currently, the Toolbox is geared specifically toward schools in three Oregon cities, but Elzeyadi aims to expand it to cover schools in different climates and locations.

In a fortuitous arrangement, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provides federal funding to school districts for them to modernize and "green" their schools. Elzeyadi hopes that his toolbox will provide guidance for schools as they decide how to use the federally granted money. He calls it "a decision support system."

Elzeyadi is joined by other organizations with similar goals. The Connecticut Green Building Council has a "GreenSchoolToolbox" and an online community for schools that want to adopt green practices. The U.S. Green Building Council put out a "Greening America's Schools" report, and, perhaps most importantly, students themselves are thinking of ways to Go Big Green, and they don't mean on the playing field.

Fads are ephemeral in the K-12 hallways, but hopefully getting a little greener won't go the same way as snap bracelets and Pogs. Still use those? Didn't think so.