The three R’s of greener schools

There’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all” (to move the whole ship in a different direction). – Buckminster Fuller 

Helping a community learn what sustainability is and how it can improve our mutual quality of life is a challenge shared by all who work in the green fields. Most people fear the unknown and may adopt erroneous ideas they hear from others, even if those ideas aren’t fact-based but rooted in fear of change. It’s easier to adopt ideas that you’ve seen in action.

Enter Reading, Riding and Retrofit, a program of the nonprofit Asheville-Buncombe Sustainable Community Initiatives, a collaborative effort with the public schools in North Carolina. We realized that if we could help the school leaders green their campuses, operations and curriculum, they could not only have healthier and greener schools, they could also, in their role as community educators, teach us all how green and sustainable practices can lead to a brighter future.

Our public schools consist of two districts and three charter schools. As a group, the schools are a microcosm of the larger community, facing those same operational and infrastructure sectors that define our challenge. The 54 campuses and supportive facilities have many opportunities for energy efficiency and water conservation and little funding to pursue them. The population of 35,000 staff and students creates a rich venue of social, economic and cultural diversity and offers a living laboratory to present the value of green and sustainable projects. With the blessings of the superintendents, RRR sets out to encourage, support and strategize with our schools to save energy and money, and to stimulate the conversation of community sustainability.

An early initiative involved convening the schools’ facilities staff, the N.C. Energy Office, Progress Energy and Waste Reduction Partners (a team of highly experienced volunteer and retired engineers and scientists). Representatives from these public and private sectors came together to exchange ideas and explore the opportunities and challenges before them. Progress Energy shared information about its new program to rebate up to 50 percent of the cost of energy-efficiency upgrades. Waste Reduction Partners engineers offered energy audits and advice for efficiency upgrades.

The state Energy Office told of pending funding opportunities and the facilities staff shared their goals and challenges. 
In fall 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its Climate Showcase Communities grants. RRR, partnering with Land-of-Sky Regional Council, was one of 25 national projects to receive nearly $500,000 to pursue energy- and carbon-emission reductions and mobilize green initiatives.

An exciting part of the EPA grant has been the opportunity to offer mini grants to teachers for green teams and energy projects in the classrooms. Partnering with A-B Tech’s Global Institute for Sustainability Technologies brought additional funding and support into the classrooms. The teachers and students have created a variety of interesting projects with these funds. From energy and environmental education materials and tools, to gardens, composting and recycling programs, students’ creativity and enthusiasm is contagious and has a positive impact on energy-conservation awareness and behaviors in classrooms, schools and homes.

Buncombe County Schools, meanwhile, built two LEED schools and initiated a “Green Schools Awards” program that recognized 12 schools last year. Evergreen Community Charter School created a student energy-audit team that had classrooms engaged in friendly competition to win the Green Cup for Energy Efficiency. Asheville City Schools created a District Green Team of teachers and staff who wrote a new Energy Management Plan and are looking at other policies and programs to support the continuous greening of their district.

According to audits by Waste Reduction Partners, these collective efforts have helped give our schools an average energy-performance rating that exceeds the state and national averages. To share this information with the public, RRR, the Land-of-Sky Regional Council and the N.C. Arboretum hosted the Sustainable Schools Series this fall, featuring some of the great strides of the past two years.

RRR team members have also participated in national conversations focused on the growing green-school movement. We presented at national conferences and received an invitation to the Center for Green Schools fellowship training. With much input from green-schools advocates, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Green Ribbon Awards this summer. This program will recognize schools from around the country that excel in their sustainability efforts. To participate, each state needs a program that vets and nominates schools for the award. RRR is partnering with the N.C. Office of Environmental Education, The Pine Jog Environmental Education Center in Florida, Environmental Educators of North Carolina, the U.S. Green Building Council’s North Carolina Green Schools affiliates, and others to develop the statewide RRR NC Green Schools Recognition Program. The intention is to have this program operating in spring 2012 to encourage more schools in North Carolina to go green.

Schools are natural partners in building a sustainable future. Sustainable educational systems not only yield more efficient public institutions but also foster a population that understands its relationship to the world that is our home. Helping schools reduce energy bills (and footprints) has proven to be a productive endeavor. Seeing the joy in the children’s eyes as they engage in building a greener future reminds me again of Buckminster Fuller’s trim tabs and the power of the individual to make the whole ship turn. We’re lucky — our community has a lot of powerful little rudders!

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Robin Cape has lived off grid, owned an architectural salvage store, and served in local politics in her efforts to support a greener world. Her current trim tab is leading Reading, Riding and Retrofit, a program to encourage and support green schools in North Carolina.