Green in the Classroom

Making your school eco-friendly isn't just good for the environment; it can keep your kids healthy - and help them learn better.

Earth Day is turning 40 this month. In honor of its four decades, sure, you can recycle more cans and remember to turn out the lights every time you leave the house. But you could do a lot more and in a way that will have a huge impact on your child: Help to make his school more eco-friendly. Consider this: Schools around the country spend more than $7.5 billion annually on energy alone. The waste schools generate - from lunchroom trash to paper - accounts for about 4 percent of the average city's total garbage. More disturbing than the huge waste: Countless studies show that K-12 indoor school conditions are largely unhealthy, and may even hamper students' ability to learn.

According to the Department of Education, 43 percent of the schools in our country have unsatisfactory indoor environmental conditions, says Sean S. Miller, director of education at the Earth Day Network, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting a healthy environment. This means one or more of the school's structural systems, such as the heating, air quality, or acoustics, is in need of repair or replacement. So when we talk about 'greening schools.' we're really talking about providing a healthy learning environment.

Green in the Classroom

The good news is that more and more school districts, teachers, and parents, as well as local, state, and federal government agencies, are waking up to the fact that schools need to get on the eco-bandwagon. The benefits of green schools range from significant energy-cost savings to improved student test scores and a reduction of student sick days, says Miller. Today, only a small fraction of the 135,000 U.S. schools are green, but the trend is growing. At press time, 236 K-12 U.S. schools have been LEED certified (the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a nationwide rating system set up by the U.S. Green Building Council); at least 1.600 more are in the process. The overall goal is to green America's schools within a generation, or 25 to 40 years, says Miller. Some forward-thinking school districts have hired architects to build sustainable schools from the ground up. Others are taking on green initiatives such as replacing chlorine-based cleaners with nontoxic products and installing rooftop solar panels.

But you're just one mom - how do you begin to make a difference? First of all, don't let the big picture overwhelm you. As part of the green schools movement, parents are doing everything from donating recycling bins to setting up car-pool groups. Parents can make a big difference at their children's schools, even if their involvement seems relatively minor, says Miller. All of these little contributions add up.'

Reduce, Recycle, Reuse

For Missy Compeau Bonaguide, a Roseland, New Jersey, mother of three, saving the planet is as simple as collecting used yogurt cups and milk cartons. At her 4-year-old daughter Chloe's preschool, recycling is an art form. Literally. The teachers ask us to save household items for the class to use. Laundry-detergent caps become paint wells for the easel. Styrofoam grape trays are used as containers for glue and art supplies. And we stockpile paper-towel rolls all year that get cut, painted, and turned into tree ornaments and snowmen.

Some might argue that a Styrofoam egg carton transformed into a fire engine with crayons and construction paper is still a Styrofoam egg carton that's going to end up in a landfill someday. But these projects serve as early lessons in conservation, says environmental activist Anna Getty, author of Anna Getty's Easy Green Organic. Teaching kids to repurpose and recycle can have a huge impact. If we can shift children's consciousness from being wasteful to being resourceful, they'll take that concept and run with it.

That's a great lesson for our kids, whose eco-awareness is essential to protecting the world they'll inherit.

The learning extends to parents too. It seemed like every other day, my 4-year-old son, Patrick, came home from preschool with about a million papers stuffed in his backpack, says Dallas mother of two Carolyn Wakefield. Notices about after-school activities, forms to fill out about school trips, assorted fliers... the paper trail went on and on. Then it occurred to me - what if the school just e-mailed us about this stuff instead?

Wakefield teamed up with the other parents to ask the director to consider switching from paper to e-mail. She loved the idea, says Wakefield. Apart from documents that absolutely need

to be signed, all communication is now done via e-mail. Like paper, water and energy are resources your school may be wasting. This is one area of greening that's very open to kid-level involvement: Switching off lights, sorting recyclables, and conserving tap water are all good practices young children can follow (and even enforce!). Feel inspired?


• Talk to your child's teacher about cutting large sheets of paper into smaller pieces, and instituting a use both sides policy. Ask if you can donate recycled items for art projects.

• A surprising number of schools still haven't made recycling a part of their routine. If yours is one of them, ask about adding labeled receptacles to the lunchroom and classrooms.