Extreme makeover: green schools edition

Put an environmental spin on your kids' education with these eco-friendly tips for schools.

By Karina Kinik

Why go green?

Does the phrase “green schools” conjure up images of moldy classrooms and gymnasiums? Take a cue from the Mother Nature Network’s eco-lifestyle TV shows and get hip to the world of environmentally friendly makeovers.

Don’t know your CFLs from your CFCs? You may be wondering why your kids' school, or any school, should go eco. Because green schools are cheaper to run, healthier, and possibly higher-performing than conventional ones: A 2006 report by the U.S. Green Building Council found that such schools yielded $74 per square foot in savings from energy efficiency, increased attendance, and teacher retention. Other research has linked schools’ indoor air quality to improved academic performance — an important consideration given that half of U.S. schools have poor ventilation and indoor pollution (high levels of lead, asbestos, pesticides, chemical fumes, and mold). Finally, studies on “daylighting” and classrooms suggest that students with the most exposure to natural light perform better.

By working closely with school officials and staff, parents can help implement policies that will benefit students and classrooms while protecting the planet.

Breath of fresh air

Looking for an easy way to get your kids active while reducing pollution? Encourage them to bike or walk to school (assuming they have access to safe routes.) If you’re nervous about letting them go it alone, get other families involved by organizing regular walk- or bike-to-school days.

If public transit or busing isn’t an option and you need to drive your kids to school, turn off your engine during extended drop-offs and pickups. Vehicle exhaust from idling engines not only releases carbon dioxide into the air but also pollutants that can trigger asthma attacks in children — one of the leading causes of school absenteeism — and contribute to chronic bronchitis and other diseases. (Scary stat: University of Cincinnati researchers found that more than 30% of U.S. public schools are in "air-pollution danger zones" because of their proximity to major highways.) Talk to other parents about the dangers of greenhouse-gas emissions and launch a school-wide no-idling campaign.

Let's redo lunch!

Whether or not you’ve seen Jamie Oliver’s TV series, Food Revolution, you’re probably aware that school lunches have come under serious scrutiny. Through efforts like the anti-childhood obesity campaign Let’s Move and the HealthierUS School Challenge, the Obama administration has made improving school lunch standards a priority.

Wondering how to get your kids’ school to ditch the corn dogs, chicken nuggets, and french fries in favor of healthier options? An organization called Farm to School is working to provide school districts with produce from local farms — just don’t expect things to change overnight. In the meantime, find out how you can ban mystery meat from the cafeteria.

If you pack your kids’ lunch, you’re already casting a vote for their health, but you can take it one step further by buying organic foods (when possible) and avoiding these nutritional no-nos. Save money and reduce waste by packing meals in reusable containers — two good options are SIGG’s aluminum boxes and these bento-style containers from Laptop Lunch.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall

Grown by the schoolyard

Thanks in part to First Lady Michelle Obama's White House garden and programs like the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California, schools across the country have created gardens where children can reconnect to their food. If your kids’ school doesn't have one, find out how to get a verdant plot going with these tips.

Aside from teaching children to love fresh, local produce — as opposed to, say, fast-food novelties like the aptly named Double Down sandwich — school gardens have been shown to improve students’ academic performance (especially in math and science) and attitude toward learning and nutrition. 

Photo credit: kaiscapes

Give 'em the green light

Despite the many variations on the joke, most people can screw in a light bulb. And good thing, as one of the easiest ways to decrease a building's energy use is by replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones. CFLs use 75% less power than regular lights and last up to 10 times longer. (Be careful when removing burned-out fluorescents, however, because they contain trace amounts of mercury; see these Energy Star guidelines for safely disposing of them.) Donate CFLs to your kids’ classroom or push for the school to install them as an energy- and cost-saving measure.

While you’re at it, talk to school officials about adopting a “switch it off” policy for lights, printers, fax machines, and computer monitors when not in use.

Photo credit: Jeezny

Clean conscience

Just as car exhaust can trigger asthma attacks in children, so too can chemicals found in industrial cleaners, herbicides, and pesticides used on school grounds. Not to mention their possible link to neurological, developmental, and behavioral problems.

Worried about the effects of such chemicals on your kids and the environment? Talk to officials about switching to nontoxic products, like those certified by Green Seal, which may also end up saving your school money. Regional Asthma Management and Prevention offers these guidelines for getting schools to use green cleaners. Schools can further limit children's exposure to nasty chemicals by adopting integrated pest management (IPM), which uses commonsense strategies to reduce sources of food, water, and shelter for rodents and bugs.

Photo credit: Anne with an E

Recycling reprise

Recycling reprise

Many schools already recycle, but if yours doesn’t, now’s the perfect time to add another R to the curriculum.

A recycling program is a massive undertaking, but parents and students can get started by figuring out which materials are thrown away and researching recycling companies and centers (look for ones in your area on earth911.com) before approaching the principal. Parents can also pitch in by donating bins for paper, plastic, and aluminum products. Figure out a green game plan with these tips from DoSomething.org and the EPA.

Some programs, like Cartridges for Kids and FundingFactory, allow students to raise money by collecting used printer cartridges, old laptops and cell phones — a great way to get the whole school involved.

Photo credit: Kevin Krejci

Karina Kinik is an associate editor for GreatSchools.