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If student achievement and staff performance are major aims, indoor environmental quality is an elephant in the room.

Consider this. We have invested in intense planning. Our learning goals have been aligned with the growing needs of society in a fast-changing world. Professional development is intense, focused on student success. Everyone is pumped. Expectations in our community are soaring.

Then, another reality. Some of our schools and classrooms are poorly ventilated. Heating, cooling, and humidity control systems are outdated, not operating the way they should. Unit ventilators are rattling. Some double as spare bookshelves. CO2 is above acceptable levels, and both students and teachers tire quickly. And then, furniture and manipulatives are often in poor condition rarely designed to meet the needs of 21st Century learning. In describing the scent in the building, the word “fresh” has never been mentioned. To say that lighting is inadequate would be a compliment. Sound levels in any other setting would be considered an acoustical nightmare.

Fortunately, growing numbers of schools are now taking indoor environmental quality more seriously. Unfortunately, some still do not realize or accept that we can aim squarely at higher achievement only to forget the learning environment and shoot ourselves squarely in the foot.

Human/Occupant comfort is the bottom line, not just the energy bill.

We are all concerned about our energy bills…and we should be. However, simply turning up the thermostat in summer and down in winter is not the answer. Our first consideration in making a building habitable and the learning environment acceptable should be a firm understanding of human or occupant response. Energy conservation and efficiencies are important, but taken too far they can become counterproductive. Our aim should be squarely on an environment that promotes learning.

Examples from green schools should fuel expectations for all schools.

A net-zero school. Not so wild a dream. Richardsville Elementary in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Discovery Elementary in Arlington, Virginia, and others have already achieved it. Net-zero means that “the amount of energy produced by onsite renewable sources exceeds the amount of energy used.” Consider solar panels, a geothermal well-field, solar thermal water heating, low-flow plumbing fixtures, mixing more daylight with LED lighting and automatic controls, rainwater harvesting, bioretention basins, sustainable materials, uplifting design, and greater energy efficiency. Digital dashboards track energy usage and other statistics that become real-life examples for lessons. These are just a few of many features aimed at creating a sound and sustainable learning environment and, at the same time, controlling our carbon footprint. A challenge will be to turn real-life examples into expectations for students, educators, and communities everywhere.

Environmentally sound, energy efficient schools should be available to ALL, not just a few.

Equal opportunity is woven into the fabric of society. Our schools are an essential part of our physical and social infrastructure, our common ground. Public morality should guide us in making sure that our schools level the playing field…leveling it up, not down. The learning advantages should benefit everyone, not just the most vocal or politically connected. A showcase green school should be replicated in some form for children across all social and economic groups, across all diversities and zip codes. Keep this in mind: Millennial parents will expect and demand the best possible learning environments for their children.

Training is essential.

Hand me a Stradivarius. I will enjoy holding it but will not know how to play it. An environmentally sound school is a finely-tuned instrument, and it is engineered to contribute to learning. The know-how to operate the facility is not passed along genetically. It comes from training, retraining, engineering, and behaviors of building occupants. Anyone who has seriously spent time in schools understands the profound connection between and among teachers, administrators, students, and those who maintain what we see in a school building and what we may not see but sense in other ways, such as fresh air, natural lighting, temperature, and humidity control. Everyone should be seen as part of the learning team, including those who keep our facilities humming.

The school can become a teaching tool, a community-wide laboratory for learning about energy and the environment.

Opportunities are often so apparent that we do not even see them. Building, rebuilding, refitting, or just improving a school facility to make it environmentally sound and more energy efficient is more than a project. It is a learning opportunity.

Students and educators need to be involved in planning. Ask them what would make life and learning in a school building even better. Explain how things work, how our behavior as occupants contributes to the well-being of others, and how they can be part of the team.

Use the building to enhance teaching about energy and the environment. Think of it as a pathway to job creation and part of what it takes to shape good citizens. Green habits can be contagious.

Encourage staff and students to do seminars for business and community leaders, parents, the media, neighbors, fellow educators, and other education systems. Many will use the ideas to upgrade their homes and offices, maybe even whole buildings or entire communities. Creating healthy and inviting schools demonstrates our own kind of corporate citizenship. Community engagement can move us from “us vs. them” to “we are all in this together.”

Safety and security will continue to be among our most basic human needs.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow nailed it when he pointed out this wrenching reality, which is common to all beings. External threats were magnified by 9-11 and invasions of schools by gun-toting attackers. Natural disasters, ranging from hurricanes and tornadoes to earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods, put a lens on how schools are constructed and what they can endure. Human caused disasters are part of nearly every crisis plan. How would we deal with and withstand nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological events? An attacker intent on doing harm? How resilient are our buildings…and how resilient are we? And do not forget those threats that are more subtle, borne of a building’s indoor environment, such as bacteria and viruses in ventilation systems, allergens, and lead in water pipes. How thoroughly have we considered these concerns in our design, engineering and planning? Might we inadvertently create accidents that could be avoided?

Education is an investment, not an expense. We need to invest resources wisely.

Truly green schools are symbolic. They provide a living example of how building technologies, environmental science, and principles of teaching and learning can be blended as we invest in shaping future generations. They are a source of community pride.

Big picture strategies and pooling our resources makes sense. Rather than simply going with what seems cheap today, we are seeing design, durability, and dollars invested paying off for years to come. That payoff comes more subtly in a better learning environment, in efficiency, and the example we set for environmental responsibility. Today’s students will carry those real-life lessons with them for the rest of their lives.

Flexibility, adaptability, and resilience are essential to sustainability.

Seems like yesterday that schools built-to-last had thick immovable walls between classrooms and largely institutional hallways. The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, seemed to come at schools in a giant wave, a demographic tsunami. For schools, they caused a building boom. Some of those then new schools were built using good materials, while others were flimsy and leaked energy like sieves. However, energy was cheap, so no problem.

At some point, thoughtful educators, architects, and engineers took a long look at the situation and realized that, to be sustainable, any building needs to be flexible and adaptable. Over decades, learning theories have merged with architectural design, technology, and engineering to create learning spaces that are healthier and stimulate everything from individual learning to teamwork. Even hallways teem with laptop or tablet wielding kids. School designers have gotten the message: the classroom needs to be adaptable to new ideas and ways of getting the job done.

The Future is in Our Hands

These ten lessons for green schools are a combination of challenges and opportunities. They reflect just a glimpse of the road we have traveled on the way to energy management, more sustainable building technologies, and the quest for even more effective learning environments.

Moving forward, dazzling new technologies will burst onto the scene and be replaced by something even better. A constant flow of new ideas and scientific and social research will light our way to more finely tuned, sustainable, and effective schools. What does or does not happen inside the building envelope is only part of the challenge, but it is an important part.

Expectations will continue to change. Simply being satisfied with what we have today is not enough, and it is not socially responsible. The status quo will yield to adaptability and resilience, which are essential to our survival.

About the Author

Gary Marx is president of the Center for Public Outreach in Vienna, Virginia. As a noted author, international speaker, educator, leadership counsel, and futurist, he has done energizing keynotes, presentations, and workshops in all 50 states and on six continents. His most recent books include Twenty-One Trends for the 21stCentury…Out of the Trenches and into the Future , and Future-Focused Leadership (published by ASCD). His work has included involvement in projects devoted to environmental, energy, and other issues affecting education facilities.

This story was originally published in the Green Schools National Network Catalyst Quarterly and shared with Natural Pod with permission.

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