Are Green Schools Keeping Their Promise?

BY ON December 18, 2012

Green schools are healthy schools

More than ever, we are a country concerned about the safety of our schools. Moms Clean Air Force has been focused on the environmental threats to our children from air pollution. As MCAF blogger, Molly Rauch points out, the air quality in schools is largely unregulated and can pose significant challenges to health and learning. Molly says schools’ indoor air quality, “has been linked to asthma and respiratory ailments, and has measurable impacts on the health and productivity of students and teachers.” She adds that according to the Healthy Schools Network:

“Out of the nearly 100,000 public school buildings in the country, more than two-thirds have at least one dire infrastructure problem, like leaking roofs or inadequate ventilation in need of repair or replacement, as well as poor chemical management. The American Society of Civil Engineers says schools are in worse shape than prisons.”

According to the EPA, conditions found in older, poorly maintained school buildings — leaky roofs; problems with heating, ventilation and insufficient cleaning or excessive use of cleaning chemical in connection with air conditioning systems, as well as, mold, dust and toxic fumes from products and pesticides — can trigger a host of health problems, including asthma and allergies. These conditions increase absenteeism and reduce academic performance. Researchers link key environmental factors to health outcomes and students’ ability to perform. Experts agree that improvements in school environmental quality can enhance academic performance, as well as teacher and staff productivity and retention.

Houston’s public schools have been in the forefront of the movement to build healthier, more energy efficient schools. This Fall, Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas and the seventh largest in the nation, opened four beautiful new elementary schools. These schools are a revelation — filled with natural light and colorful low-VOC paint, outdoor gardens and state-of-the-art technology. They are four of 20 new schools and 135 renovated using our 2007 bond issue funds. These new gems all are LEED certified. This means they are awarded points for building features that aim to minimize emissions, energy and water use, waste and indoor pollutants. LEED® stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED has become an important moniker in environmentally-conscious construction.

According to USAToday, the Green School movement is sweeping the country, as “green schools exist in every state and account for 45% of new school construction, up from 15% in 2008.” Nearly half of the nation’s schools require some sort of green certification like LEED, as a condition to receiving state construction funds. And a growing number have considered adding similar requirements in the past two years. Other large school districts like Houston’s are mandating green standards.

Houston’s Independent School District has received considerable recognition for its efforts. The U.S. Green Building Council presented HISD with its Green Pioneer Award. This is good news. You only have to see the happy faces of students in a new green school library glowing in the surrounding natural light, to know that green schools are well received in their communities — like this video, highlighting some of Houston’s newly constructed green schools.

But recently, the effectiveness of these efforts have been called into question. Since the LEED points are assessed and awarded before a new school is occupied, a certified school might be considered green before its real effectiveness is determined. USAToday cites a number of studies showing that some of the green schools are less energy efficient than their conventionally-built counterparts.

A school can reach certification by gaining points with less expensive measures, while avoiding the more involved requirements. This approach saves money, but can compromise benefits. Fortunately, some of the features that benefit the indoor environment are low cost, like using regionally produced materials and low-VOC products. Unfortunately, some of the most important features for air quality are avoided because they are too costly and rife with potential builder liability. For example, LEED awards point to schools that make sure building sites are not contaminated, and that includes mold prevention features. But far fewer builders pursue these points—(only 42% of schools include mold-prevention features) because of the added costs.

In a balance between benefit and cost, decision-makers seem very clear about the value and cost savings of conservation and efficiency measures. But my hope is that HISD will become a model for other cities and school districts across the country by prioritizing its students and indoor air quality, and not just energy savings. Since improvements to student performance due to clean air takes time evaluate and are difficult to quantify, my plea is that we look to what we already know about the value of a clean environment for the health and well-being of our school children.

Do you know what your city and school districts are doing about indoor air pollution? Is your school or school district a part of a green school initiative?

Fighting air pollution on all fronts, indoor and out, Moms Clean Air Force will bring you the latest information to help your children breathe easy.


TOPICS: African-American Community, Asthma, EPA, Indoor Air Pollution, Pollution, Schools, Texas