Getting Schooled on Sustainability

Students at Northern Virginia’s green schools are working on their most important assignment ever: saving the planet.

Students at Northern Virginia’s green schools are working on their most important assignment ever: saving the planet.

By Cynthia Long / Photography by Sam Kittner, Prakash Patel and VMDO

Cougar Elementary School, Manassas Park, VA
Courtesy of Prakash Patel

On a bright Saturday morning, 8-year-old Kylie Vogel skips over to the playground across the street from her house in Manassas Park. When she gets there, she doesn’t shoot down the slide or climb along the rock wall like the other kids. She doesn’t dangle from the monkey bars or play a pick-up game of tag either. When Kylie arrives at the playground, she picks up trash.

“I can’t believe people treat our planet this way,” she says to her mother, exasperated by her community’s litterbug habits.

Clearly, Kylie has learned to give a hoot, but not from Woodsy the Owl, the U.S. Forest Service icon who asked kids not to pollute in those bygone 1970s public service announcements.

Kylie is a student at Manassas Park Elementary School, a new “green” school where budding environmentalists are cultivated as carefully as the vegetables in the school’s garden. The school was named one of the 10 Greenest Buildings of 2010 by the American Institute of Architects, not only for its sustainable design but also for its efforts to help shape and educate the next generation of environmental stewards.

With everything from rainwater harvesting and geothermal well fields to solar tubes, recycling stations and even reserved parking spots for alternative fuel cars, the school is a lean, green, natural resource-saving machine.

Courtesy of Sam Kittner

To reinforce the students’ connection to the surrounding environment, planks of poplar, cherry, ash, and red and white oak trees line the hallways so kids feel like they’re walking through the woods outside in the adjacent forest. And every room is themed after a Virginia animal or plant, with illustrated plaques like the kind found in museums describing the flora and fauna.

Built-in “truth windows” show kids the pumps that run the geothermal well field, and a natural ventilation system encourages them to help the school save energy. A green light comes on in classrooms when the outdoor temperature and humidity level is ideal for opening the windows. The moment the light comes on, little hands go up around the classroom to alert the teacher that it’s time to let in some fresh air.

“This building is 100-percent efficient,” says Wyck Knox, the Charlottesville-based architect who designed the school. “Every space serves an environmental and educational mission with hands-on learning opportunities at every turn.”

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which developed the green building certification system known as LEED, defines a green school as a building or facility that creates a healthy environment that is conducive to learning while saving energy, resources and money.

Cougar Elementary School
Courtesy of Prakash Patel

Knox adds that a green school should not only save resources but also teach students how and why they are, and should be, saved. “The building’s green features should be exposed and explained to the students,” he says. “You can’t expect kids to conserve and appreciate something they don’t understand.”

For the past few decades, schools haven’t been great sources of architectural innovation. In the 1950s, uninspired, boxy school buildings were hastily constructed to meet the postwar baby boom, and their design principles persisted for years. As student populations increased, the buildings grew into sprawling pancakes of tacked-on classrooms where single-pane windows provided little or no insulation.

But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, schools were sources of civic pride. Big, stately high schools were often among the grandest buildings in town, and they opened with great fanfare. They were elite buildings designed to educate an elite population—only about half of the student body would earn a diploma, and even fewer would go on to college. The rest of the kids would leave around eighth grade to help out on the farm, join the family business and bring home an extra income.

“World War II, the GI Bill and the baby boom really transformed public education,” says Bob Moje, longtime architect and colleague of Wyck Knox. “For the first time, there was a general expectation that all kids would graduate, and possibly continue beyond high school—that was the real dream.”

Manassas Elemenary School, courtyard
Courtesy of Sam Kittner

As the respect for doctors, lawyers and other highly educated professionals grew, so did the population of students. And as the country geared up for the era of factories and mass production, education followed the same model—both in the delivery of teaching and in the design of school buildings themselves.

The grand entrances, porticos, pitched roofs and tall windows of the 1920s and 1930s gave way to the flat boxes of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s that became known as “egg crate” schools.

“If you could build a school with classrooms two or even four deep, it was cheaper. And if you could take the walls out, it was cheaper still,” says Moje. “The quality of the schools went down, and the value went down. It was an absurdity. In the 1920s, when a school was built it was a main event, complete with groundbreaking ceremony. But in the past few decades, they’ve opened with all the fanfare of another McDonald’s.”

Not only were schools designed to be quick and cheap to build, energy efficiency wasn’t considered at a time when fuel was inexpensive and easily available. But then along came the oil shortages of the 1970s and long lines for gas. Saving energy was suddenly a top priority. The public school solution to the energy crisis was to prevent it from escaping classrooms by sealing off windows—some schools even eliminated classroom windows altogether because they were thought to be too distracting.

Manassas Elemenary School, classroom
Courtesy of Sam Kittner

Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge was built in 1972 as an “open school” with windowless pods that were designed to cut down on distractions and save on heating costs. Problem was, according to former assistant principal David Melton, they accomplished neither.

“By the time I got there in the early 1990s, partitions had been placed between classrooms, but it was still very noisy, and the airflow was less than ideal and didn’t really help with heating costs,” he says.

Melton said the rooms were dark, and the kids who spent their days in the windowless classrooms had darker moods. “Natural light brightens your attitude,” he says. And rather than being less distracting, the windowless, wall-less classrooms caused more disruptions to learning. “Without doors, the students would get caught up in the hustle and bustle going on outside their rooms,” says Melton.

Today, classrooms with large windows and their “distractions” are exactly what green designers are after.
What do you think happens on a sunny day in a classroom with a wall of windows overlooking a Virginia forest?
“Students spend a lot of time looking outside,” says architect Knox. “And that was our intention at Manassas Park Elementary—to bring the outdoors in and the indoors out. The physical world is the greatest teacher we have.”

What else happens in a classroom flooded with natural daylight? Test scores go up.

A 1999 study by the Heschong Mahone Group in California found that students in classrooms with more natural light scored as much as 25 percent higher on standardized tests than other students in the same school district. Earlier research in Canada found student achievement gains were “significantly greater” in classrooms where artificial lighting most closely approximated sunlight.

The research confirms what school designers like Bob Moje have been saying for years—natural daylight enhances learning by boosting the mood and health of students and their teachers.

“Healthy, high-performance schools support the education of healthy, high-performing students,” says Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools at USGBC. “And at green schools like Manassas Park, the building itself has lessons to teach.”

Virginia ranks ninth among states with green K-12 and higher education facilities—California and Michigan have the highest concentration—but the movement is growing. Of the 2,120 USGBC LEED registered or certified schools in the country, 79 are in the state of Virginia.

John M. Langston High School in Arlington was the first building in Virginia to get LEED certification from the USGBC in 2003, but the Northern Virginia school that grabbed the most headlines was the state-of-the-art T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria City.

The modern green school opened its doors in 2007 with a whopping $98 million price tag. About $1.2 million accounted for green features like a 450,000-gallon underground cistern to collect and store rainwater, waterless urinals and a rooftop garden that cools the building when it’s hot outside and warms it when it’s cold.

The school shines like a new penny, but the old school building had to be demolished to make way for the new structure, which isn’t always the most sustainable construction model. As those in the preservation industry say, the greenest building is the one that’s already built.

That’s Steve Nicholson’s philosophy. He’s the coordinator of technical support and sustainable design at Fairfax County Public Schools, where most green school projects are renewals and additions to existing schools.

“The word ‘green’ means different things to different people, so we use the word sustainable because we think it conveys the philosophy more clearly,” he says. “A sustainable school is designed to reuse as much of the existing structure as possible, which minimizes the impact to resources. And we recycle as much construction waste as we can because we don’t want to add even more to our landfills.”

Nicholson agrees with Wyck Knox that a key component of a green, or sustainable, school is fostering a concern for conservation among the students.

“Our children are going to inherit the earth, and we need to prepare them for that responsibility and encourage them to think in innovative ways,” he says. “Of course, we in construction don’t run the instructional end of things, but we install educational displays about the sustainable features of the building as a step in the right direction.”

Lori Huberman-Hayes can speak to the instructional end of things. She’s the science technology resource teacher at Daniels Run Elementary School in Fairfax City. With the help of the PTA and grants from local nonprofits like Lands and Waters Inc., in Falls Church, she’s developed one of the most extensive elementary environmental programs in the district.

“When the students are engaged with hands-on activities and are given a sense of purpose, like saving the environment, they get excited about learning,” she says.

The school building itself doesn’t have the latest and greatest green design technologies, but the grounds provide plenty of ecological lessons in what Huberman-Hayes calls a “living classroom.” It’s an outdoor nature center that goes well beyond the raised bed gardens where students plant and harvest vegetables. There’s also a sponge garden that reduces and filters storm water runoff. There’s a pollinator garden lush with native plants that attract pollinating insects like bees and butterflies to support biodiversity. A bioretention rain garden catches storm water runoff from the school’s roof. A native grass hillside was planted to replace a wide area of turf grass that provided no wildlife habitat and required mowing, fertilizers and pesticides. A constructed marsh wetland, one of the most complex ecosystems necessary for a healthy planet, restored a habitat for frogs, turtles, herons, ducks and dragonflies that the students now study and enjoy. A trail winds around the gardens and is marked with educational signs explaining the environmental problems each area addresses.

How many kids know what a riparian buffer is? The students at Daniels Run do, because they actually built one. It’s an area of vegetation that runs alongside bodies of water like streams, rivers and lakes, and acts as the last line of defense against storm water runoff and water pollution. Daniels Run Stream, the school’s namesake which flows right through its backyard, lost its riparian buffer after years of degradation caused by suburban development, increasing erosion and water pollution in the stream, the watershed, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

With the help of the FCPS Grounds Maintenance Division, which dug trenches parallel to the stream, the students ripped out invasive plant species and filled the trenches with compost to provide a healthy foundation for the native species they helped plant and seed. The compost came from one of Huberman-Hayes’ first projects—indoor, red-wiggler worm composting bins that first-graders raised with fruit and vegetable scraps from the cafeteria.

Fish have now returned to this little stretch of the Daniels Run waterway. So have more birds and insects. And when students dropped water testing kits into the stream to measure their results, they discovered that they were making their part of the stream a healthy, clean water source where wildlife could thrive.

“Show a 9-year-old how they can preserve life systems in a watershed, and that’s when the learning really flows,” says Daniels Run principal Kathy Mullinex. “There is so much more environmental learning potential in a school beyond basic recycling programs.”

By now, practically every school in the state has recycling bins in its cafeteria, but Kim Wilson, 43, of Alexandria, thinks the schools in Fairfax County can do more to reduce waste, especially in the cafeteria where she says students are served food on disposable, Styrofoam trays and eat it with plastic utensils that come wrapped in plastic baggies.

“Most of the schools don’t even make their food in their own cafeterias. They only heat it up there, so you have high fuel costs and more pollution from transporting food across the county from a central kitchen,” she says. “I’d rather my kids not eat lunch at school because of all that waste. Most days they bring their own lunch in plastic containers that we can wash and reuse.”

Still, she’s gratified that more schools are going green—not just as a parent but as a member of the community. When there’s less waste, her tax dollars can go toward other things, like hiring more teachers, or buying more computers.

“Instead of using the old heat pump, you can put in solar panels that you buy from a local company,” she says. “It’s a cycle. You help Main Street businesses, you improve the quality of education, you help students, and you produce a highly educated workforce that eventually puts its skills to work for you in your community.”

Back in Manassas Park, Kylie Vogel is already putting her skills to work. Kylie recycles, turns off lights around the house and picks up litter at every opportunity. She even insisted that her family plant more flowers and trees in the yard after discovering in science class that plants and trees clean the air and provide oxygen for people to breathe.

And she’s not the only one. Cindy Flynn’s two daughters also go to Manassas Park Elementary and go out of their way to pick up trash outside, turn off lights and turn off the water when they brush their teeth. Shannon, 10, is in fourth grade, and Casey, 8, is in third.

“I’ve noticed a huge difference in my children,” says Flynn, 43. “Now they think hard about the choices they make and how important it is to preserve resources.”

They also encourage Flynn to think about her own choices.

After a lesson on light bulbs and the amount of energy just one bulb can burn up, Shannon walked into the kitchen, looked up at all the recessed lighting, and shook her head with disapproval.

“Wow, Mom. You have six lights going at one time. That’s a lot of power for just one room. Is that really necessary?”

(March 2011)