April 18, 2011

Green Schools

A growing number of schools across the country are taking the initiative to go green. It's an enterprise I consider crucial in today's world. Let me explain why.

First, consider schools' carbon footprint. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 50 percent of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed when machines are turned off. Imagine what's happening in schools! Now add in all the faucets left on by small children, the paper carelessly wasted by students of all ages, and the countless recyclables being tossed in the trash and that is one major footprint.

Then, there's the impact on children's health and their (closely related) ability to learn. According to the American Lung Association, schoolchildren miss more than 14 million school days a year because of asthma exacerbated by poor indoor air quality. A major contributor to that poor air quality is the toxic chemicals in the cleaning products used to clean schools. EPA studies show that poor indoor air quality can reduce children's ability to perform mental tasks involving memory, calculations, and concentration. While some environmental factors can be an impediment to learning, other can help bolster learning. Studies show that students in classrooms receiving the most daylight during the school day perform up to 20 percent better on math tests than children in classrooms with artificial lights.

Green schools strive to reduce their ecological footprint, while making the school environment more conducive to learning and all around healthier for students and staff.

Here are some ways you can help green up your child's school.

Pack lunches in reusable containers to avoid plastic and reduce trash.

Have your child walk, bike, or ride the bus to school if possible. Alternatively, you can organize a carpool.

If driving, don’t idle your car at the school's pick-up/drop-off area.

Ask your child's teacher if the school has a formal policy about unplugging computers and turning off lights at the end of the day and during down times like lunch and recess.

Volunteer to make signs for your child's teacher reminding children to turn off the faucet when they're done washing their hands.

Donate an air-cleaning plant to your child's classroom. NASA spent two years testing 19 different house plants for their ability to remove common pollutants from the air. The most effective plants were proven to be philodendron, English ivy, spider plants, dracaena, weeping fig, golden pothos, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, bamboo or reed palm, and snake plant.

Offer to help your child's teacher with green projects and activities, such as nature walks (children can keep a journal of what they observe), making recycled crafts like milk carton birdhouses, growing plants in the classroom, planting a tree outside the school, or starting a recycling program.

Be an example for other families. Check out Raising A Green Kid for more information.

Ready to go bigger? Organize a group for these green school initiatives.

Start your school's PTA or Wellness Committee (any school receiving federal funding for lunch programs is mandated to have one) on a get green campaign or establish a separate Green Team or Eco-Committee. The Green School Initiative offers a variety of resources to get you started.

Take the individual measures you've taken to a school-wide level. Encourage all parents to pack waste-free lunches and carpool. Install air-cleaning plants throughout the building and develop an energy conservation policy for the entire school.

Implement a no-idling policy for all cars and buses.

Seek out transportation companies with bio-diesel, clean diesel, natural gas or hybrid school buses.

Replace incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent ones. Consider the installation of skylights.

Start a school recycling program.

Opt for eco-friendly, non-toxic cleaning products. Many of the products used to clean school buildings contain toxic chemicals that pollute the air and threaten children's developing respiratory systems. Look for products with the EcoLogo or Green Seal label (a list is available at greencleaning.ny.gov/Products.asp), use micro-fiber mops and cloths, and convert to high efficiency equipment such as HEPA vacuum cleaners.

Convert to environmentally-friendly school and office supplies. At the very least, try to avoid products made of PVC or #3 plastic.

Go to epa.gov/iaq/schools/actionkit.html for a free Tools for Schools Action Kit. The step-by-step guide shows schools how to carry out a practical plan to improve indoor air problems at little, or no, cost using straightforward activities and in-house staff. The Kit provides best practices, industry guidelines, sample policies, and a sample IAQ management plan.

Make sure school grounds are maintained using Integrated Pest Management to reduce the use of chemical pesticides.

Consider a garden as a school-wide project. A school garden can be used in a variety of lessons – from art to science.

Remove vending machines and any other sources of processed foods from your lunch room. Promote fresh produce instead. This may involve that school garden or a CSA or Food Co-op program available from local farmers.

Green your school events. Cut back on disposable paper products and opt for reusable decorations.

For fundraisers, try selling energy efficient light bulbs, crafts made from recycled materials, or experiences instead of wrapping paper or candy.

Green up the curriculum. Earth Day Network's national GREEN Schools Campaign, in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and The Clinton Foundation, offers a variety of resources, including free K-12 environmental lesson plans and activities.

The Earth Day Network's goal is to green all U.S. schools within a generation. Help make that goal a reality by helping to make your child's school a Green School.

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