Leading by example? | November 14, 2007 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



Cover Story - November 14, 2007

Leading by example?

State-mandated climate change regulations are coming, but school districts won't feel the pressure. Locally, some schools may not need it.

by David Boyce

If any age group might be expected to be paying close attention to the issue of global warming, teens would seem good candidates. Adulthood is in their sights and they can grasp what's happening to the world they will inherit.

At cosmopolitan Menlo-Atherton High School, the majority of students appear to be otherwise occupied. Most M-A students are "not informed" about climate change, says junior and Portola Valley resident Anna Murveit, who heads M-A's new student environmental committee.

"It's frustrating when people don't understand how important it is," she says. Administrators and staff, she adds, are understandably too busy with traditional school priorities to be talking about climate change. "That's why it's so important to get kids passionate about this," Anna says.

But student heedlessness may also be understandable. Global warming is an abstract and scientific issue and it carries with it a built-in problem for people wanting to warn us. You can't take a satellite photo of it as if it were a hurricane or a wildfire, nor can you see it coming your way like a tornado or a flooding creek.

Global warming may already be increasing the potency of these calamities, but it's been hard to get people to listen. One possible way of changing those odds: talk to a captive audience.

Students are captives for several hours a day during the school year. They're also impressionable, they can be passionate, they're a point of leverage in their families — as advertisers know — and scientists say that global warming threatens their future and that of their children.

And schools would seem an ideal venue for addressing this issue, both in the classroom and through administrative decisions that showcase green construction and maintenance practices.

Should curriculums address global warming beyond ad hoc showings of "An Inconvenient Truth"? Are school facilities being built with climate change in mind? Is muddling through, as we have been doing in the wider culture, the right answer for schools as well?

The Almanac looked at classroom activities related to global warming and public school operations. There are no mandates and none on the horizon that would require schools to measure and control greenhouse gas emissions, nor do curriculum changes seem in the cards, but parents, students and some teachers and administrators are finding their own way.

Missing curriculum

At Woodside High School, environmental science is available in two advanced-placement courses that meet University of California "lab science" standards, and three regular courses that don't meet that standard and tend to be seen by college-bound students as a waste of valuable class time.

"For a high school course to really hold its weight, it must be accredited by the UC as 'worthy,'" says M-A science teacher Lance Powell. "This is bad news for environmental education."

To earn a UC stamp, Mr. Powell has had to repackage a chemistry class as "Environmental Analysis through Chemistry." He says he will be spreading the word about his success to other schools.

The California Environmental Protection Agency, at the direction of the Legislature, is drawing up an environmental curriculum for a 2010 release, but it will remain optional, says Crystal Harden, an environmental education consultant working for the Department of Education.

Given the increasing news coverage of global warming, schools can create their own courses, but with no standardized test available from the state, not many schools do, Ms. Harden says.

The Department of Education's K-12 science curriculum isn't due for editing until 2014, and it's unlikely that the department would act in the meantime without direction from the Legislature, she says.

The global warming issue is still being debated in the media, she says, adding: "We're looking at science from the total perspective. We're making sure that students are not getting someone's opinion."

No obligation

All new construction in California, public schools included, is governed by Title 24, the state's decades-old and periodically updated energy efficiency standard. Recent greenhouse gas initiatives add to the regulatory burden but exclude K-12 schools.

In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an executive order creating the Green Building Initiative, which applies to state buildings and has a goal of cutting energy use by 20 percent by 2015 by methods that include analyzing the return on investment in green building elements and using standards set by the National Green Building Council.

AB 32, the greenhouse gas emissions legislation enacted in 2006, will require heavy emitters, including power and cement plants, refineries, universities, maybe even breweries, to cut emissions by 11 percent by 2010, 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

But AB 32 does not apply to K-12 schools because they are "cash-strapped," says Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young.

Schools are also low emitters, with building emissions that average 1,200 metric tons of greenhouse gas per year, well below the 25,000-ton minimum that the Air Resources Board is considering in this round of regulations, says San Mateo County supervisor and board member Jerry Hill.

"That doesn't mean they will be exempt from a threshold of regulation in the future," Mr. Hill says.

Every new school building plan must be vetted by the Division of the State Architect, which has comprehensive "sustainable schools" advice at its Web site, but all measures are voluntary, State Architect David Thorman says.

"We're not pushing them that hard because the cost of building a school is so high," he says. "The general feeling, in terms of the governor's office, is that they don't want to enforce anything on the school districts that will cost more money."

Asked about this issue, Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, says he supports sustainable design and that he would be thinking about it as it applies to schools. "These are complex issues," he says.

Mr. Ruskin and state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, noted that Proposition 1D of 2006 earmarks $100 million for school incentive grants for "environmentally friendly construction."

Grabbing the bull

The Woodside Elementary School District recently completed a $13 million upgrade to classrooms and staff offices and included waterless urinals, new high-performance heating and cooling systems, and an artificial-grass soccer field that will save 1.5 million gallons of water annually.

It could have been greener had the school calendar not imposed "a very, very fast track," and had the entire campus been rebuilt instead of just part of it, allowing buildings to be reoriented with respect to the sun, says project architect Carter Warr, who describes himself as "highly motivated and highly interested" in green practices.

Had Mr. Warr sought a score for the project from the National Green Building Council, it would have been judged "certified," the lowest possible of four rankings but still green, he says.

The Menlo Park City School District sought advice from the Collaborative for High Performing Schools in planning the green elements of its $91 million in projects at Hillview, Laurel and Encinal schools.

CHPS is a joint effort among major California utilities and school districts and state agencies involved in school construction. The American Institute of Architects endorses CHPS, including its goal to improve student performance through "better designed and healthier facilities."

One common design element is air conditioning. The Menlo Park district will use it sparingly — in labs, gyms and high-occupancy rooms — says facilities program manager Ahmed Sheikholeslami.

"Mostly, we're going to rely on natural ventilation and cooling," he says. That methodology will include vented skylights, operable windows, fans to send hot air up in summer and down in winter, and a monitor that senses open doors and windows and shuts off cooling after a delay, he says.

The district could do more, but it gets costly, he says. "We're kind of headed in the right direction." All appliances the district buys exceed Energy Star ratings and each school has some kind of composting and recycling program, Mr. Sheikholeslami says.

At M-A, the new $30 million performing arts center with sweeping solar-panel-free rooflines is being built to Title 24 efficiency requirements, but the project will not be overtly green, says Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Ed LaVigne.

Mr. LaVigne describes himself as an 8 on a scale of 10 in terms of his interest in environmental issues, noting that of the district's 35 buses, eight were converted to compressed natural gas at a cost of $165,000 apiece in grant money. The rest were fitted with "very expensive" exhaust particulate filters, he says.

He also requires custodians to use a "team cleaning" approach to minimize the number of rooms with lights on at any one time.

Will water-conserving native-plant landscaping weigh heavily on his mind for the new theater? He'll think about it, he says, adding: "What weighs heavily in my mind is to make the front of the M-A campus very attractive."

The costs of building green can be "prohibitively expensive," he says, and tradesmen aren't always familiar with the practices.

Would he welcome direction from the state? "Only if they're going to increase the money that goes along with the new mandate," he says. "If they don't increase the money, the answer is a resounding 'No.'"

Gregory Kats, a principal at Washington, D.C.-based clean-energy consultant Capital E and the author of a 2006 national study called "Greening America's Schools," found that green schools use 32 percent less water and 33 percent less energy than conventional schools.

The savings over time for a $3-per-square-foot premium for green alternatives yielded a financial benefit of $70-per-square-foot, Mr. Kats says. The lower energy usage also results in lower CO2 emissions.


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