Students learn about green practices in the Sprout Space, an award-winning, eco-friendly modular classroom.
Green design is becoming increasingly common in businesses and public buildings, but the trend is also reaching the halls of education. A new exhibit at the National Building Museum (NBM) focuses on the greening of American schools.
The Green Schools exhibit, which opened March 3 and will be up through Jan. 5, 2014, features more than 40 projects at K-12 schools from across the country, including 10 in our region.
"The real focus of this exhibition was to show both the showpieces of green architecture, but also the smaller actions, individual efforts that are being done within schools and how they range," NBM Co-Curator Deborah Sorensen says. "There are ways of being green that can fit all needs and abilities."
NBM Curator Sarah Leavitt says that 20 percent of our population spends their day in a K-12 classroom. "That's 60 million people every day," she says. "It's something that we can all relate to as community members, as parents, a concern that we all should have if we don't."
Leavitt says that schools face problems ranging from toxic cleaning chemicals, to asbestos, to narrow windows that don't open or allow much daylight into the classroom. She says another big issue is energy and water use.
One of the concepts featured in the Green Schools exhibit is a waterless urinal. "It's actually making it more sanitary because the bacteria grow in the water as it sits," Leavitt says. "So that's kind of a technology they've developed to make that both more sanitary and use less water, so it's kind of a win-win."
Local schools featured at National Building Museum exhibit
Sitting on the museum's west lawn is the Sprout SpaceTM, an award-winning modular classroom designed by Perkins+Will, a leading architecture and design firm. The classroom, which features large windows, proper ventilation, and rainwater collection, is a cost effective solution to providing students with a healthier temporary classroom.
Other projects in the exhibit range from campus gardens and solar panels to green building materials and a school in Seattle that has a river running through it. Local schools include Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in Germantown, which Sorensen says is a far-reaching project that includes eco-friendly design, landscaping, and recycling programs.
Schools aren't just recycling bottles and paper products. The Barrie School in Silver Spring reused its own building materials during reconstruction. "When they took down the old building they used a lot of that wood and the materials as much as they could from that building into their new building, so you're seeing a lot more of that recycled steel being used," Leavitt says.
Manassas Park Elementary School is located next to a protected forest, which Sorensen says inspired the architects to take that theme throughout the building. "Manassas Park, I think is a nice example of a school in this area that has kind of taken the green aesthetic all the way through their school, and then transferred that also into their curriculum with the way the school is built," Leavitt says.
From the ground level to the canopy, students can peek out of their classrooms and stare straight into nature. Signage throughout the school identifies the various flora and fauna. "It's a very special and unique project that brings the outside in in a very dramatic way," Sorensen says.
Food and health education go hand-in-hand
Another local school featured in the exhibit is Walker-Jones Education Campus, a preschool through eighth grade school in northwest. The school is LEED Silver-certified, which is required of all new school buildings in D.C., thanks to the Green Building Act of 2006. But it's not just the school's design that makes it stand out; it's the programs that go on there.
David Hilmy teaches physical education at Walker-Jones, but he also oversees the school's farm and green roof.
"Everything on the farm, the kids are involved with," Hilmy says. "And instead of me having just one club as it were, I have about 12 or 13 different student groups that I rotate through, and they have different responsibilities on the farm."
Under Hilmy's leadership, students of all ages plant, tend and harvest a variety of crops. The farm has five fields, which are each cared for by different grade levels. The students also grow herbs, manage a composting pile, and care for the farm's honeybees.
"We're the only urban farm in the whole of D.C. public schools," Hilmy says. "I teach physical education, but of course part of that is health education, and under that umbrella is nutrition. So where does food come from? Well here it is."
Hilmy says that ultimately, it all boils down to food justice. "If you can grow and eat your own food you're saving money, but you're also in charge of what you put in your body."
Walker-Jones is a Title I school, and Hilmy says that about 95 percent of the students are on a free or reduced school lunch program. The students' experience on the farm is integrated into their curriculum, but their agricultural pursuits also serve another important purpose.
"Our aim primarily is to get as much food as we can produce on our kids' tables," Hilmy says. "We have a kitchen lab where the kids can learn to cook the produce that they can harvest from the farm, and we're working toward getting them to get that on their table at home for dinner with the recipes and the skills to be able to cook whatever they harvest."
The kids aren't the only ones reaping the benefits of the seeds they've sown. The public can also work on the farm in exchange for fresh produce.
Promoting green schools and a green education
Hilmy says he wants to teach his students how to care for the environment, just as he coaches them on how to take care of their bodies in gym class. Both are personal responsibilities he hopes they will carry into adulthood.
"What will the world look like tomorrow or even in 50 years? We have no clue. We don't know how businesses will operate. We don't know how governments will operate. The one thing that is true is that we will still be in a threatened environment," he says. "And so for me, green living, or green education... that should be a habitual, normal part of living."
Leavitt says that the push for green schools often comes from the students themselves, who manage composting and recycling programs, among other projects. "They're the ones that are going to be leading this, obviously, in the next generation," she says. "So I think a lot of these programs really empower the kids to think about what comes next."
One of those forward-thinking youngsters is D.C. resident Layla Borland, who visited the Green Schools exhibit with her mother on opening day. Ultimately, the 10-year-old girl will continue her education at either Woodrow Wilson High School or School Without Walls Senior Hall School, the latter of which is included in the Green Schools exhibit.
"It was very interesting to see that School Without Walls is taking an initiative on being green," Borland says. She says that being part of green projects and after-school activities would be fun, and that if more kids choose to attend environment-conscious schools, it could increase funding for green programs.
"The government will notice that, and say maybe we should make some other schools green because this will also help in making kids go there and also just be good to the environment," she says.
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