Greening Our Schools, Part I


What is “greening” our schools? Some have used the term in referring to school building, and others use the term for bringing sustainable programs into the school. Parents are also an integral part of greening a school. While these topics have an enormous amount of information pertaining to each subject, which deserve more in-depth discussion, I will highlight a few important aspects in two parts. Part I will talk about greening school buildings, and Part II will address green programs and parent participation. I will also offer resources for you to delve further into the idea of green schools.



With all the problems of the environmental hazards within the school making students sick, building healthy schools is finally becoming a priority. The leading hazards are: indoor air pollution (include radon, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and various allergens such as mold and animal dander), asbestos, lead poisoning, and pesticides. Students have reported headaches & breathing problems, especially asthma worsening, skin rashes, and nose bleeds.

School buildings with high radon levels also exhibit carbon dioxide levels high enough to “starve the minds of students for oxygen” (Krueger, 1991).

Fungi and mold can cause health issues such as infections, allergic reactions, ashthma, skin dryness or rashes, or interstitial lung disease. (Center for Indoor Environments and Health, University of Connecticut Health Center, 2004)

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s state data on California’s Public Elementary Schools in Measure S1,

Childhood exposure to lead contributes to learning problems such as reduced intelligence and cognitive development. Studies also have found that childhood exposure to lead contributes to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and hyperactivity and distractibility increases the likelihood of dropping out of high school, having a reading disability, lower vocabulary, and lower class standing in high school; and increases the risk for antisocial and delinquent behavior. There is no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood, and adverse health effects can occur at very low blood lead levels.

Thirty-seven percent of public elementary schools in California have lead paint, while ninety percent of all schools in the U.S. surveyed still have lead paint! Although the presence of lead paint is not an indicator of exposure, there is evidence that one-third of all public elementary schools are at risk of lead contamination from deteriorating paint.

Even right now, schools are still experiencing problems with their buildings, such as Oak Ridge Elementary School in North Carolina having an HVAC (Heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) issue severe enough that health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended closing down it’s campus until everything is fixed.

Another school in Brooklyn, Novia Scotia in Canada, West Hants Middle School was closed in June 2009 due to air quality.

There are many more stories about sick students, not to mention teachers and other school staff, due to their school environment, and sadly, the poor and minorities suffer the most from lack of resources.

Obviously, this is of great concern, and building green schools (or remodeling schools to become green) will address these hazards and more. According to Build Green Schools, a Green Schools Campaign by U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a “green school” is defined as:

A school building or facility that creates a healthy environment that is conducive to learning while saving energy, resources and money.


There are two organizations that are predominantly certifying schools that are environmentally sustainable, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) and the USGBC.

Green Schools – CHPS DESIGNED

The CHPS has two recognition programs, CHPS Designed and CHPS Verified:

CHPS Verified provides an independent review of projects in California, Colorado, Texas and Massachusetts using the CHPS Criteria to assess their high performance status. Projects that meet minimum certification receive a CHPS plaque.

CHPS Designed is a self-certification process for projects in California, Texas, New York, Washington and the Northeast. CHPS Designed projects receive a certificate and use of the CHPS Designed logo.

CHPS Verified is intended for individual schools and CHPS Designed is geared towards school districts.

CHPS was founded to deal with energy efficiency in California schools, quickly expanding their work to include school design, construction and operation. They provide resources, training, and tools. Their assessment tools are specific to eleven states.

A high performance school is defined by the following:

  • Healthy
  • Comfortable
  • Energy Efficient
  • Material Efficient
  • Easy to Maintain and Operate
  • Commissioned
  • Environmentally Responsive Site
  • A Building That Teaches
  • Safe and Secure
  • Community Resource
  • Stimulating Architecture
  • Adaptable to Changing Needs

Search for CHPS schools and districts here.

Green Schools – LEED BUILDINGS

What is LEED for Schools? It was developed by the USGBC:

The LEED for Schools Rating System recognizes the unique nature of the design and construction of K-12 schools. Based on LEED for New Construction, it addresses issues such as classroom acoustics, master planning, mold prevention, and environmental site assessment. By addressing the uniqueness of school spaces and children’s health issues, LEED for Schools provides a unique, comprehensive tool for schools that wish to build green and achieve measurable results. LEED for Schools is the recognized third-party benchmark for high-performance schools that are healthy for students, comfortable for teachers, and cost-effective for budgets.

There are four levels of certification based on the ratings: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

Read more on their website.

Green schools are LEED certified by meeting all prerequisites and reaching credit point requirements in their building process or in their building materials in six key areas:

  • Sustainable Sites
  • Water Efficiency
  • Energy & Atmosphere
  • Materials & Resources
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Innovation & Design Process

In simpler terms, in building the school, environmental sustainability is considered in planning as well for its operational efficiency. Different factors earn variable points, such as: sites with alternative transportation (e.g. bike racks, bus routes, etc.) nearby in order to reduce car emissions; using renewable or recycled materials such as flooring, carpets, or furnishings; solar energy or another energy alternatve onsite; energy efficient lights and appliances; windows strategically placed to take advantage of natural light; using non-toxic paints and finishes; windows efficient in controlling light and heat, reducing the need for electricity; using microfans that take advantage of natural convection currents; water efficiency in landscape use; stormwater management, such as rain gardens, rainbarrels, or other ways to prevent run-off; and many more.


An excellent example of a green school receiving platinum LEED credits, 57 of 69 possible points, is Sidwell Friends Middle School in Washington, D.C which has achieved the following: over 90% reduction of it’s water use; over 75% of building materials were regional; 60% less energy demand than the average school; 60% of construction waste were recycled; and 80% use of native plant species used in landscaping.

Their water management sounds amazing, including treating their sewage onsite in a man-made wetland which has become a living laboratory for learning about biology, ecology, and chemistry.

Great Seneca Creek Elementary in Maryland is the state’s first public school to achieve LEED certification. Their bathrooms include waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets, and motion activated faucets to reduce water useage. Classroom cabinets are made from recycled wheat grass and partitions are made from recycled bottles. They also use geothermal heating and cooling to cut down on energy use.

Search for more LEED Certified schools here.

For further links and tools, my blog has a page of resources, which is continually updated, dedicated to minimizing our school footprints!
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  1. Cleaning up our schools is crucial. It is appalling to consider that going to school could potentially be harmful to a child’s health. CHPS defined a high performance school as “a building that teaches.” I love this concept! Let’s model to students what it means to live a healthy, sustainable life by educating them in that exact environment.

  2. I didn’t know there was a LEED for Schools rating system. I think it’s a great idea! Students are beginning to hear about “going green” but don’t necessarily know what it means. We should show them in their schools and homes what it’s like to have a sustainable surrounding.

  3. Bill Orr says:

    Thanks for the nice mention of CHPS. We have a lot of exciting things going on including new state adaptations of the CHPS Criteria in Texas and Colorado, a CHPS Criteria for relocatable classrooms, the release of our high performance products database, the development of a national CHPS Core Criteria, and the soon to be released CHPS Operations Report Card. Become a fan of CHPS on Facebook or follow the latest CHPS News on Twitter.


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