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Green schools may help improve kids' health

Most conversations about school performance revolve around the Common Core, or standardized tests, but there's another factor affecting our students that has nothing to do with curriculum. School buildings—where our kids spend the majority of their days—are inhibiting student performance, and even affecting their health.

Martin J. Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University, Syracuse, Onondaga County, New York, USA. Built in 2005 by architect Bruce Fowle of FXFOWLE Architects. Included many environmentally conscious features in its roofing, heating and use of recycled materials.
Barry Winiker | Getty Images
Martin J. Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University, Syracuse, Onondaga County, New York, USA. Built in 2005 by architect Bruce Fowle of FXFOWLE Architects. Included many environmentally conscious features in its roofing, heating and use of recycled materials.

This might come as a surprise, but the effect of the built environment on students and teachers is well documented. According to the EPA, "Studies show that one-half of our nation's 115,000 schools have problems linked to indoor air quality (IAQ)." And it's not just the air — limited access to daylight and classrooms that are too hot or too cold make it harder to focus and learn. The EPA makes clear that "unhealthy school environments can affect children's health, attendance, concentration and performance, as well as lead to expensive, time-consuming clean-up and remediation activities."

There is a growing movement around the country to improve the built environment for our students and teachers — a movement for green schools.

As president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, I've seen firsthand how green schools can transform communities. Just walking into one, you know you're not in a typical school; hallways and classrooms are filled with fresh, clean air, natural sunlight, and attentive, smiling kids. These are more than just environmentally-friendly buildings for learning; they provide more learning-friendly environments.

Critical to this movement has been Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a rating system — not unlike a report card —which measures a building in six categories: energy, water, waste, indoor environmental quality, materials, and innovation. In fact, LEED has been so successful that, in 2007, we issued the first version of LEED specifically for schools, and in 2010, we created the Center for Green Schools. Today, there are 1518 LEED certified green schools across the country and hundreds more on the way.


In 2010, the Lake Mills Middle School in Wisconsin became the first LEED Platinum public school in America, and the building is filled with green technology, like a highly efficient geothermal system for heating and cooling, and energy-sipping lighting. As a result, the middle school saves $85,000 a year on energy. But the benefits are much more than financial. According to Dean Sanders, the district administrator,students and staff in the middle school have reported "significantly reduced respiratory illnesses and [kids] no longer need to take asthma or allergy medication."

After the success of the middle school, the Lake Mills school district turned its attention to replacing their 60-year-old elementary school. The new elementary school is 50 percent more efficient than a comparable non-green school, and it saves the taxpayers nearly $131,000 in energy costs every year. Not only that, but I'm told that after its first year of operation, the elementary school is already seeing fewer absences.

And Lake Mills is not alone. According to a 2013 report released by McGraw-Hill Construction, 91 percent of green elementary and secondary schools report improved health for their students, and 70 percent report higher test scores.

Commentary by Rick Fedrizzi, CEO and founding chair, US Green Building Council. Follow him on Twitter @rickfedrizzi.