The Last Word August 2012

By Anne L. Bryant

This is a story of hope, light, and 21st century learning.

A few weeks ago, I helped hand out awards to the first winners of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Green Ribbon Schools,” a program designed to recognize schools with facilities that have reduced environmental impact, improved the health of their students, and have integrated effective environmental lessons into their classrooms.

These so-called green schools have been around for decades and are generally known as facilities that have reduced their impact on the environment with sustainable features and reduced operating costs. Some of these strategies have become standard features in building or renovating schools, and that’s tremendous progress. It just makes sense to use materials and incorporate features that will help the environment and save money in the long run.

Over the years, NSBA has encouraged school boards to investigate the benefits of building environmentally friendly facilities that give each student a healthy atmosphere to grow and learn.

But what I am most excited about --  in fact, becoming an evangelist about --  is that we’re seeing green schools lead the way to true 21st century learning. These schools not only feature state-of-the-art architecture, they also are incorporating lessons from their environments into students’ learning, and that’s leading to higher student achievement --  a double hit! It is a win-win.

Interestingly, the Education Department found that many of its 78 honored schools (which included 66 public, eight charter, and 12 private schools) serve predominantly underprivileged populations and used limited resources to create healthy environments.

Here are some of my favorite examples from the award-winning schools:

Terra Environmental Institute in Miami has truly embraced the concept of teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. This science-focused magnet high school features three academies: Environmental Studies and Field Research, Biomedical Research, and Robotics and Engineering Technology. Students use the school’s greenhouse and composting sites to conduct research, and the agricultural sites and aquaculture research facilities were built and maintained by the students. Think about it: Green --  yes. But the school also is teaching 21st century skills --  problem solving, analytical reasoning, research, teamwork --  all forms of STEM. Bravo.

In Alabama, Munford Elementary School uses a forestry theme to bring conservation and environmental education into its students’ lessons. This school has partnered with local, state, and federal organizations to build exhibits on themes such as trees, recycling, water quality, and soil profiles. These themes are aligned with the state standards in science, social studies and math, and the real-life, hands-on lessons have paid off through impressive scores on the state assessments. In the past three years, the school’s fifth-graders have scored between the 90th and 99th percentile on the state’s science exams.

Longfellow Elementary School in Long Beach, Calif., received a perfect score of 100 on its federal Energy Star rating. I loved the fact that every Longfellow teacher takes professional development courses in environmental and sustainability practices, and also that physical education classes are almost always taught outdoors. The school even engages its students and the community in healthy practices by hosting “Walk to School Wednesdays” and giving prizes to the classes with the most participants. This example can be replicated anywhere across the country!

And Roadrunner Elementary in Phoenix is not a new building --  the students and staff at this 1970s-era facility used behavioral changes and retrofits to reduce the building’s energy consumption by 35 percent. This school has a long list of corporate and business partners that provide teachers training in such areas as STEM subjects, finance, and nutrition. The school, where about half of the enrollments are classified as English Language Learners, also engages its students through an outdoor classroom, wildlife habitats, and vegetable and rain gardens. Talk about return on investment. This 1970s “retrofit” propelled the school into the 21st century for its students.

These schools demonstrate their lessons through their facilities and the surrounding environments, but you don’t have to have a new building to make this priority in your school district. I urge you to think about how your schools can incorporate environmental lessons into their curricula.

These schools are models for the nation. They give us hope, light, and 21st century learning.

Anne L. Bryant (abryant@nsba.org) is the executive director of NSBA.