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The Healthy School and The Sustainable City

By: Stephen Boese

October 01, 2007

New York City is now in the middle of a $13 billion school construction and renovation plan, while New York State spends billions more. Yet, until recently, how often have we really paid attention to how our schools are built and how our money is spent in relation to the sustainability agenda? And how does this massive investment in school construction impact efforts to promote a sustainable city for future generations?

The "Healthy and High Performance School" is a vision that promotes student learning, improves student and worker health, saves energy, improves the environment and saves money for education. It is a green school, a sustainable school, a healthy school, an environmentally friendly school and an energy-efficient school.

Thankfully and perhaps surprisingly, a quiet revolution has occurred in New York's approach to designing school buildings, and the vision of a new generation of schools built to be healthy and high performance is becoming a reality. State and City policy makers recently have been rolling out meaningful initiatives after prodding by environment, education and public health advocates. These achievements could soon result in one of the most significant and long lasting achievements of this decade's educational and environmental progress.

About five years ago, when I began my career in advocacy for "green" school design, I believed myself to be on a near-quixotic venture. I was advocating for schools to be built "green" at a time when education reform, student achievement and securing significant funds for education were at the top of the policy makers agenda. Unfortunately but perhaps understandably, "green" or healthy school design was not at the top of their lists. Educators struggled with understanding how "green" school design, born in the environmental movement, would be advantageous to educators and their students. As one educator asked, "What does saving the whales have to do with educating children?"

Today, improving education remains extremely important, yet incredibly, we have also made real and substantial policy strides in promoting green school design. What we now understand is that educational attainment and school design are tightly linked and the good news is, we can act on this understanding. Here are the milestones in this new policy direction.

In New York City, Local Law 86, the City's Green Building Law, requires all new city public schools and major newly renovated schools to adhere to green building standards. This past April, I was thrilled to have my organization (Healthy Schools Network) join with the New York City Apollo Alliance in sponsoring a forum attended by over a hundred of the city's education, environmental, labor and health leaders, to hear School Construction Authority President Sharon Greenberger and her key staff present their Green School's Guide. This guide brings New York City design, construction and major renovations in compliance with Local Law 86. It is also a comprehensive and well thought-out green design manual that promotes student health and learning as much as it promotes energy efficiency and environmental stewardship.
In Albany, advocates convinced the President of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the Commissioner of Education to work together to develop a unique New York standard for green school design. On September 27, 2007, at an Albany press conference, Education Commissioner Richard Mills, NYSERDA President Paul Tonko and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis unveiled NY-CHPS (Comprehensive School Design), perhaps the best and most progressive green school design manual in the county. Although still voluntary, NY-CHPS is a comprehensive and progressive manual that puts New York State in the top ranks of green school advocates, and it is being promoted by the New York State Department of Education.

How can we explain these milestones and why are they happening now? More specifically, what drove policy makers to devote time, resources and political capital to promoting green schools? And what lessons can we draw?

Educators are now taking the lead in green building because a growing body of evidence derived from research and experience convincingly demonstrates that the design and operation of a school has a direct impact on student learning, student health and student attendance. A Healthy and High Performance School is child centered. It focuses on the needs of children to learn, breathe fresh air, and have optimal lighting and acoustics. By integrating these needs with building design that demands energy efficiency, efficient resource utilization and environmental stewardship, economies are achieved and resources are optimized to create a modern school building.

High performing students learn better with fresh air, good lighting and good acoustical design. High performing students are healthier, because of much improved indoor air quality, avoidance of toxic materials in classroom design and maintenance, and due to improved lighting and acoustics. High performing buildings save energy and water, reduce carbon emissions, and otherwise reduce the building's negative impact on the environment. Good for learning, good for health and good for the environment, these comprehensive design standards demonstrate that a holistic, informed and comprehensive approach to school design and construction can indeed be a win-win-win scenario.

There is also no longer any need to assume that there is a larger "first cost" as compared to conventional school buildings. As experience with "green" school design grows, exceptional costs have dwindled. NYSERDA and the State Education Department, in the Introduction to NY-CHPS, notes that high performance schools can be built as the same cost as conventionally design schools. When there is a first cost differential, it is generally a mere 2%. In October of 2006, Greening America's Schools, Costs and Benefits by Gregory Kats showed that "green" schools will easily recover any usual first cost investment within just a few years. Cost savings accrue from decreased energy usage, decreased maintenance needs, improved student attendance and worker job satisfaction. When adding factors such as the benefits of a better educated and healthier generation of children, the savings to society are even more dramatic. As summarized by Kats,

"This national review of 30 green schools demonstrates that green schools cost less than 2% more than conventional schools — or about $3 per square foot ($3/ft2) — but provide financial benefits that are 20 times as large. Greening school design provides an extraordinarily cost-effective way to enhance student learning, reduce health and operational costs and, ultimately, increase school quality and competitiveness."

Educators and policymakers are seeing that there is no downside to the Healthy and High Performance School, only the upside of better achieving students, healthier children and increased cost savings from the inherent efficiencies in operating a high performance building. This is why the New York City and the New York State Education Departments have endorsed and are now promoting Healthy and High Performance School Design. Saving whales is important; saving children is also important. Healthy and High Performance School design policy has been successful this far because it has proven to integrate key values of sustainability with improving children's health and education.

Still, we are a long way off from seeing a whole new generation of Healthy and High Performance Schools. Despite the current investment level, it will take decades of sustained commitment to rebuild and redesign all the City and State schools. More immediately, we need to assure that all New York City schools are built as promised (and required by law) and designed in accordance with the Green Schools Manual. For the rest of the State, we need to have Albany follow New York City's lead and make NY-CHPS the building standard for all schools; they must be more than voluntary guidelines. In addition, the SCA and the State's Education Department must each engage in a process to continuously improve and refine their guidelines, fully taking community and education stakeholder input into account. In this way, they will assure the adoption of the best and most protective standards. Further, City and State leaders must assure that schools are built on the best possible sites. Schools built on toxic sites have been a tragic, and avoidable, problem.

What does all this mean for the future of a sustainable city? The 1987 report Our Common Future is rightly cited as being the beginning of the "sustainability" movement. In her forward, Prime Minister Brundtland argued,

"The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word "environment" a connotation of naivety in some political circles."

In re-reading the report in 2007, I am struck at the breadth and power of its discussion of sustainability, that traditional "environmental" issues are just one facet of sustainability, and how the issues and recommendations in this report are leading us to create a more livable future.

It is clear that, Healthy and High Performance school design seems to be succeeding because the demonstrated benefits are multifaceted, broad in scope, and appeal on many levels. Healthy children, better learning, happier teachers, cost savings, operational savings, energy efficiency, and environmental stewardship are all part of the vision.

Maybe saving the whales has a lot to do with educating children after all, and vice versa.


Stephen Boese is a very unlikely sustainability and children's environmental health advocate, educated as a social worker, with prior careers as a staffer in the State Senate, lobbying, business development, program management, cafeteria worker, movie theater janitor and newspaper delivery among others.
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