Little Green Schoolhouse

As students learn about energy efficiency, their school buildings increasingly practice it

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David Burnett / Contact for TIME

The 50 solar panels arrayed on Sidwell Friends' roof provide 5% of the new middle school's total elelectrical supply.

Flat strips of lush, submerged grass rise in terraces from the courtyard of Sidwell Friends' new middle school in Washington like rice paddies in a mountainous Chinese village. Part of a man-made wetland connected to the school's water system, the plants filter liquid waste, just as real wetlands do with rainwater. It's an engineering marvel, but Sidwell student Patricia Solleveld, 15, doesn't want you to get the wrong idea. "It doesn't smell at all," she says. Not only that, says Alejandro Alderman, 14, but the wastewater filtered through the wetland is clean enough to drink. "But D.C. regulations don't let us," he says. "Which is kind of too bad."

Even if Sidwell middle school isn't quite a wetland, it can still lay claim to being the greenest school in the U.S., becoming the first institution to earn a platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, an architectural watchdog organization.

More and more public and private schools have begun replacing their wheezy old buildings with energy-efficient new ones--or at least upgrading the structures they have. New Jersey is requiring all new school buildings to meet stricter environmental standards, and California and Massachusetts have made millions available to green their classrooms. It all comes at an opportune time: with baby-boomer-era buildings reaching the end of their life span, the U.S. must embark on a new wave of school construction anyway. "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do this right," says Ted Bardacke, a senior associate at Global Green, an international environmental group.

If the initial cost of going green is high--and it can be--the savings can be even greater. Currently, the energy bill for primary and secondary schools in the U.S. is $6 billion--and that's per year, more than is spent annually on computers and books combined. Green schools can also inculcate green values in students at an impressionable age. "We are in the process of developing a generation of kids who are environmental actors," says Rose Ellis, superintendent of the Williamstown School District in Massachusetts, which features a sustainable primary school.

That's the philosophy behind Sidwell's new middle school, where science teachers like Jennifer Mitchell have incorporated lessons on solar panels, double-glazed windows and other green features into their curriculums. When students discover that the wood beneath their feet comes from recycled wine casks or that carbon dioxide sensors in the classrooms can automatically adjust temperature by detecting how many people are inside, they're living a daily lesson in what green really means. "It becomes a standard they take with them," says Mitchell.

Sidwell, a tony Washington institution that counts Chelsea Clinton among its alumni, obviously has resources others don't, but schools don't need green to be green. Sultana High School in San Bernardino, Calif., used basic conservation techniques, like shutting off lights and equipment when not in use, to cut its energy bill by $100,000--half of which Sultana was allowed to keep for its own use. Like his counterparts at Sidwell, Mark Ziesmer, a Sultana science teacher, has designed lesson plans around conservation. "The students were really motivated," he says. "They want to understand what it means to be energy conscious."

Ultimately, they may come to understand even more than that. Sidwell is a Quaker school, and headmaster Bruce Stewart points out that Quakers have a familiar saying: "Let your life speak," which means let actions represent you. "Now we say, 'Let your building speak,'" Stewart says. "Let this be a testament to who we are and what we believe." If the next generation is going to be the planet's last line of defense, the least we can do is prepare them in an environment that values the environment.