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Celebrate Earth Day with 11 Ways to Green Your School! 

Anisa Metzger 

Anisa Baldwin Metzger, Center for Green Schools Fellows Manager

Whether you are a parent, teacher, school staff member, student, or community volunteer, you want your school to provide a healthy, welcoming place to learn. Green schools aren’t just important on Earth Day, so the Center for Green Schools came up with 11 simple ways you can help make your school greener year-round! You can also see this piece featured on Kiwi Magazine's Blog !

1. Ready, set – wait, where do we start?

It’s hard to know what to fix if you don’t know where you stand. If you want to kick off a recycling or composting program at your school, it’s helpful to know how much of each kind of waste your school produces so you target the right items. If you want to help your school save energy, you need to know how much energy it uses today and where the biggest energy inefficiencies are. There are a lot of reasons to find out where your starting point is—the celebration of your school’s success will be so much sweeter if you can measure how far you’ve come. And showing measurable success is the best way to get others on board to help out.

2. Go behind the scenes

Speaking of figuring out where your school stands—why not ask the real experts? When is the last time you talked to your school’s custodians? The men and women who take care of school buildings are the best source for knowledge about how to make schools more efficient, healthier, and more environmentally responsible. They have often been trained on green cleaning methods or energy efficiency initiatives. Where can the lights be turned off more often? Why is there a strange smell in that corner room? They know their buildings inside and out, and asking them for ideas is a great way to appreciate their work and bring them onto the team.

3. Put the kids in charge

If you are a parent or you work with kids, you know that no group is better able or more willing to speak up about why being smart about the environment is important than kids–they get it! Students across the country are starting green clubs in their schools, with the help and support of teachers and parents. These students plant gardens on school property, calculate carbon footprints, advocate for environmentally preferable purchasing, assess school energy use, enforce the school’s recycling program with their peers, encourage teachers to bring sustainability curriculum into the classroom, and much more. Help start a club at your school, and let the kids run with it!

4. “Hey, what’s this thing do?”

Your school might already be a green school. Heck, your school might be the greenest school in the world. But how would you know? There is a simple way to find out (and share) this information: SIGNS! We’ve seen some fantastic examples of schools that use signs to help tell their buildings’ stories. Take a look at this video about Manassas Park Elementary in Virginia, where you can see all of the various ways the school tells its occupants what’s going on around them. The more you find out about your school and how it works, the more you will gain to share with all of the students, faculty and staff in the building. If you want to green your school, everyone needs to feel like they’re part of the team—and people don’t get behind something they don’t understand.

5. You are what you eat…and recycle, throw away and compost…

The attention that school lunch food has been getting lately—through programs like Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution—is beginning to change the way Americans look at the food we give our kids. You can get the movement started at your school in a number of ways. You can plant a school vegetable garden to help students understand where food comes from. You can work with kids to prepare fresh meals or snacks that they can enjoy on the spot. And don’t forget about the opposite end of the lunch period—what about hosting a waste-free snacks day?

6. Let the Sun Shine In

If you’ve ever had to spend a few hours in a windowless office or conference room, no one needs to tell you much about the relationship between daylight and productivity (and happiness!). But in case there is any doubt, several studies have connected the two in adults as well as children. So open the blinds! Take that student artwork off the windows and hang it somewhere else. No windows or small windows in your kids’ classroom? Move class outdoors every once in a while or to a room with more access to the sunshine.

7. You know it’s dust, but what IS it?

We don’t always think about it, but dust is not just magically-appearing gray clouds. It comes from our clothes, our skin, and various other items we use during the day. It also, importantly, contains dust mites and cockroach dander (yes, it’s true!) that can be very harmful to breathe, especially to kids with asthma or other respiratory problems. The EPA’s Tools for Schools Indoor Air Quality program gives tips for keeping a healthy classroom—one of the simplest and most crucial is to clean out the clutter. Those corner piles of paper and decorations and science experiments serve as great collection areas for dust—not to mention their tendency to block daylight from windows and get in the way of air conditioning and heating vents. Clean them out and your classroom will be automatically easier to keep clean and healthy.

8. No really, what is that smell?

We know schools can really smell—whether it’s someone’s day-old snack, the students’ recess sweat, or the closet full of who-knows-what. The temptation is to mask all those smells with plug-in or spray air fresheners, but please don’t! The problem is that those smells could also be coming from mildew under the sink, cleaners or sealants used by the custodian, mold above the ceiling tiles, or any number of other sources. If you mask the smell with something additional (like the air freshener), you’re not only NOT getting rid of the problem, you’re also ADDING to the asthma triggers within the classroom. Air fresheners and bleach-based cleaners do not make air better for students and teachers; they only add other smells on top of an already bad situation. Learn more about air quality in classrooms by exploring the Green Cleaning and Indoor Air Quality resources from the Healthy Schools Campaign and by taking a virtual walkthrough developed by Greenguard.

9. Lights out!

Did you know that lighting typically uses over 25% of the energy used in a school? A school-wide lighting retrofit is an easy way to save on electricity bills—the payback time from the decrease in energy costs is typically less than two years. But if a retrofit isn’t in the cards for your school, a good old-fashioned “Turn Out the Lights” campaign can go a long way. Your student green team (see #3) and your excellent signage (see #4) will forge the way, and a chat with your custodian (see #2) will ensure you’re hitting all of the bases. If you’re looking for more ways to save energy at school, you can find great tips from Alliance to Save Energy, SchoolDude, and EPA’s EnergyStar program.

10. Carpooling – jump in, the water’s fine!

You can start small, but a school carpooling program can have a big effect. The more kids or teachers in a car on the way to school, the less fossil fuel used per person and the less pollution emitted per person. Start in one or two classes to see if parents seem interested in reducing the number of times they need to drive back and forth from school. There are several ways to scale it up from there—from a simple bulletin board by the office to a paid service for online carpool coordination. You could also start a campaign to get kids and families walking or biking to school (as a group), and see who will stick with it for the year.

11. Stand up on your (fragrance-free) soap box!

The more excited you get about greening your school, the more comfortable you’ll be talking about it with others. Present what you’ve discovered to your school or school district leadership. They’ll likely be impressed by your service to your school, and your voice can add to the encouragement they are getting from their peers and leaders. Encourage them to join the Coalition for Green Schools—a group that includes the National School Boards Association, National PTA, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, American Association of School Administrators, Association of School Business Officials, Council of Educational Facility Planners and other leading education and school building organizations. Use examples from the PBS Special Growing Greener Schools, from actions of state legislators around the country, and from inspiring schools such as Environmental Charter High School in LA and the School District of Philadelphia.

Reproduced with permissions from the Center for Green Schools