July 16, 2021

Nancy Bailey: Green Schools: Are they Child and Teacher Friendly and Public?

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Nancy Bailey takes a look at an issue that has been quietly sliding under many people’s radar– green schools. Is this initiative a good thing for education, students, and teachers? Reposted with permission.

Environmentally friendly school facilities are critical. Teaching students environmental awareness and how to be good stewards of the earth is imperative. But are new green school buildings encompassing a whole curriculum? Are they practical, focused on the environment and the students, supportive of real teachers, designed to be democratic and public, or are they about something else?

Will green schools be another way to privatize public education? Many nonprofits connected to charter schools and technology promote green schools. The Waltons, known for their push to privatize public education, are community partners with Environmental Charter Schools.

Our planet is in trouble, and public schools are old, so focusing on green buildings is prudent. The green school movement is architecturally popular around the world. But how will children learn in these buildings of the future? Is the push for sustainability overriding the academic and social needs of children?

Will teachers with teaching degrees and credentials in their teaching areas be available to students?

Are these facilities also being designed to consider safety in tornado alley or earthquake zones? Where are they being built? Is the land safe?

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Congressman Jamaal Bowman (NY-16) recently introduced legislation to promote climate resiliency in public schools. The Resilient Schools Act of 2021 would establish a Climate Change Resiliency Program at the Department of Education that would help prepare public school systems for the impacts of climate change while also providing infrastructural and health benefits to the broader community.

I appreciate Senator Markey and Congressman Bowman, but teachers don’t seem included, other than the AFT endorsing the plan.

Another endorser of this legislation is the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, promoting clean, safe buildings. They sell a variety of teaching activities in their Learning Lab connected to standards and promote more nonprofits surrounding environmental issues.

Anisa Heming, the director, is cited. Heming is described as one of the Most Powerful Women in Sustainability by Green Building and Design Magazine. Heming was first hired to work in the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The RSD was all about converting real public schools into charter schools. Now New Orleans is mostly charter schools. Is this what we can expect with green schools after Covid-19?

It’s important to look at new schools. Here are two.

The recently lauded Kathleen Grim School for Leadership and Sustainability at Sandy Hook (also P.S. 62) was renamed after New York City deputy chancellor for operations Kathleen Grim. She died of cancer in February. It’s honorable to name a school after Grim, but the name sounds like a charter school. Why not call it the Kathleen Grim Elementary School?

Many of the building’s features are praiseworthy.

The school’s sustainable features include an ultra-tight high-performance building envelope, daylit interiors, a geo-exchange system, energy-efficient lighting fixtures and kitchen equipment, energy recovery ventilator, demand-control ventilation, and solar thermal system hot water.

However, the track in front of the windows looks distracting, the playground appears cramped and uninviting, and the bicycles to generate electricity, while interesting, seem showy and impractical. Teachers might not like the hallway distractions.

The Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, is beautiful, and the title doesn’t sound like a charter school, but the school itself seems like a science center. The classrooms are open, and in both this school and the Kathleen Grim School, there don’t seem to be many students.

Here’s how Theming + Graphic Wayfinding (terms that seem foreign) are described at the Discovery Elementary School.

As students progress through the school, their “world expands” –  with the first floor themed around animals found in earth eco-systems and the second floor themed around the elements of the sky and heavens. Students start out as Backyard Adventurers in Kindergarten and finish Fifth Grade as Galaxy Voyagers. This story line is graphically communicated along an entry wall highlighting each Explorer grade level. 

When students advance, so does the scope of their expanding world, both in graphics and in complexity of content. Educational signage connects the sustainable features of the building with factoids about the natural world. 

Where are the other subjects? And even science centers change their exhibits. Won’t children get tired of the same wall presentations day after day?

It’s heartening that both schools have libraries, though.

This country must create better-engaging, well-rounded, workable, school facilities for children, safe and environmentally friendly to set an example for the country and the world.

But the teachers who work directly with the children, parents, and the community, deserve seats at the table. They should work with architects and environmentalists to help create safe and sustainable green schools, all-encompassing democratic public schools, child and teacher-friendly, that will serve America for years to come.


The heart of our green building community’s efforts must go well beyond construction and efficiency, and the materials that make up our buildings. We must dig deeper and focus on what matters most within those buildings: human beings.

~LEED’s (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)

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