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Detroit Public Schools Go Green

Andrea Newell headshotWords by Andrea Newell
Data & Technology

Detroit is not a city that most immediately equate with sustainability or environmental stewardship, but its school district has taken a huge step forward by developing an ambitious sustainability plan.

November 26-30 was the official kickoff week for the Detroit Public School (DPS) district’s Go Green Challenge and an introduction for all schools and the community to its Sustainability Management Plan (SMP). The Go Green Challenge is a call to action for all schools in the Detroit district to work to reduce their energy use. The overall DPS SMP focuses on six areas of impact: energy and water, waste and recycling, transportation, outdoor environment, indoor environment and nutrition.

In the last decade, more and more schools have been striving for sustainability. The USGBC and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have compiled studies demonstrating the importance of a healthy school atmosphere and the savings realized by green schools. The U.S. Department of Energy found that, nationally, K-12 schools spend more than $6 billion a year on energy, and estimates that energy improvements could cut the bill by $1.5 billion each year.

In a 2008 study, Building Minds, Minding Buildings: Our Union's Roadmap to Green and Sustainable Schools (BMMB), AFT President Randi Weingarten writes:

At our most pragmatic, we know that green schools save money. Energy-efficient buildings keep skyrocketing energy costs in check, which in turn, frees money for crucial academic and student support services. But “going green” is about much more than just saving money: Green schools mean healthier environments for students and staff. Research shows that better environmental quality yields more productive human beings and greater academic achievement for all students.

Healthy students and staff equal more productivity and better test scores

The U.S. Dept. of Energy reports that U.S. schools spend more on utilities than they do on textbooks and computers combined. In many districts, that line item is second only to personnel costs. Air quality is also a serious issue. In the BMMB report, AFT cites a GAO study that showed that more than 15,000 schools suffer from extremely poor air quality. Toxic chemicals from furnishings, mold spores, formaldehyde, and other biological organisms are released into the air triggering breathing issues in both students and staff.

According to the American Lung Association, asthma is the one of the most chronic illnesses and the third-leading cause of hospitalization in children under 15. Asthma is also the leading cause of student absenteeism, to the tune of more than 14 million days each year. There are also high rates of work-related asthma in education employees, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Improving air quality can translate into a 25 percent drop in asthma and as much as a 20 percent decline in viral illnesses. Reducing absenteeism increases the amount of time children are at school learning and lowers health care costs for students and staff. Healthier air has also been shown to increase student productivity and test scores, and contributes to a better working environment and better teacher retention.

Energy management pays off

To date, DPS has initiated several individual sustainability efforts, but they were unevenly applied and specific to different schools. In April 2012, DPS brought in LEED-accredited architect, Emile Lauzzana, to be the district’s energy manager. He was tasked with developing a sustainability plan and pulling all the individual environmental efforts in each school together into a cohesive program.

The plan has three main goals, Detroit Public Schools’ own version of the triple bottom line, Lauzzana says. The DPS SMP aims to increase student achievement, work toward financial stability and educate and benefit the community. The district is currently completing construction on seven new schools that meet LEED green building standards. DPS is partnering with Detroit Edison to operate 800 kW of solar energy facilities at two DPS schools. The solar leases will generate $480,000 in lease payments to DPS and generate enough green electricity for over 150 Detroit households for 20 years. Since April, DPS has also identified more than $195,000 in utility billing errors and instituted a rigorous audit process to review the utility bills in the future. "We have more than 1,000 utility bills every month that must be reviewed and checked." Lauzzana said. Those recouped funds and future avoided costs can be dedicated to education budget.

DPS prepares and serves tens of thousands of meals each day. DPS has created its own gardens for fresh produce that is served in the schools (see video) and improved school nutrition includes no fried foods, no pork, whole grains, local produce and meatless days.

The biggest component of the DPS SMP plan is student, staff and community involvement. With the implementation of environmental science elements in the school curriculum and activities designed to engage students and staff and educate them about conservation, recycling and sustainability, DPS believes that students themselves will be the most effective sustainability ambassadors. If students take what they learn home with them, they can educate their parents, look for ways to conserve energy in their homes and be a good environmental steward in their community.

DPS already has strong support for their sustainability efforts. DPS Emergency Financial Manager, Roy S. Roberts, supports it wholeheartedly, and just as in business, school sustainability programs have a much better chance at success with leadership buy-in.

Lauzzana stresses that it is crucial to have Roberts backing the SMP. "Mr. Roberts comes from the business sector. He had a long career at GM and sits on several corporate boards. Through that experience, he has seen sustainability drive cost savings and improve impact on the environment, so bringing that to DPS made a lot of sense to him."

DPS Go Green Challenge

The U.S. Department of Energy and USGBC estimate that schools can save 5-15 percent of their utility costs if building occupants employ some simple no-cost behavioral changes. DPS estimates that could result in more than $1 million a year in energy savings for the district and the Go Green Challenge was born.

It is a voluntary program that challenges schools to lower their utility costs. Each school that lowers costs by more than 10 percent receives a cash award, and the school that reduces the highest percentage of costs in each category receives a bigger amount.

  • Elementary schools: 10 percent = $750, winner = $1,500

  • Middle schools: 10 percent = $1,000, winner = $2,000

  • High schools: 10 percent = $1,200, winner = $2,400

The WARM Training Center, a Detroit-based nonprofit that specializes in energy efficiency, green building and sustainability, and AmeriCorps have teamed up to provide 12 AmeriCorps members to serve as Green Team leaders in the DPS schools that have signed on to the Go Green Challenge. Fifty-four out of 100 schools in the district are participating, so each AmeriCorps member is assigned multiple schools to oversee. The AmeriCorps members commit 40 hours a week to DPS for a year-long term, and these members bring an abundance of knowledge and passion for the environment to their jobs. In addition to working with students and staff at the schools, the AmeriCorps members will help track and audit utility bills, build energy use analyses, mentor DPS students, and help communicate the SMP and its programs to students, staff and the community among other tasks.

Alessandra Carreon, one of the AmeriCorps members, is a chemical engineer with a background in environmental consulting. She moved from Seattle to Detroit this past summer to begin her MBA at the University of Michigan, but to also be in the thick of sustainability efforts in Detroit. Affiliated with the USGBC, she heard about the AmeriCorp DPS position through the Detroit chapter of the organization.

Carreon explained that after the school year ended, the AmeriCorps members work continues by overseeing part-time home efficiency and weatherization jobs for high school students. These students are also eligible to apply for AmeriCorps scholarships for college.

"I am so inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of the school district. There is buy-in across the board by the staff. From the principals to the preschoolers, everyone is excited about this," Carreon said.

Going green: The more the merrier

The Go Green week kicked off with a speech by Roberts. The subsequent days were filled with opportunities to learn about environmental issues for students, parents and members of the community. Some events included:

  • Ronald Brown Academy hosted a DTE Energy THINK! ENERGY presentation. Students in grades 4-6 and all school staff were given energy conservation kits that included water-conserving shower and faucet heads, light bulbs, and a night light to help families continue their green efforts at home.

  • The A. Philip Randolph Career and Technical Center hosted a Build a Raised Garden Bed class. After a demonstration, parents and community members were able to ask questions of the students and supervisor of the Detroit School Garden Collaborative and Master Gardener, Ajani Carter. Attendees received blue prints and recipe handouts of DPS’ healthy Green Stop Light Salad.

  • Golightly Education Center hosted a kale harvest from the district's own garden. Afterward, students made the kale into chips for snacking.

  • A student scavenger hunt encouraged students to collect edible things that grow in their neighborhoods, find local food and plants, learn about landfills and recycling and take pictures of the tallest tree they can find, among other things, opening their eyes to the world around them.

  • The Go Green poster contest was sponsored by the Detroit chapter of the USGBC. Students were invited to create a poster showing how to Go Green in their school or their home by saving energy, recycling, cleaning up their neighborhood, gardening, walking, biking, or any other way they can help the environment and their community.

Carreon was most impacted by the kale harvest. "I was really touched by the conversation I heard between the students. Sixth graders were working alongside preschoolers and they were so nurturing to them. They were all excited and saying things like 'Nature food is so cool!' and you realize that maybe some of them have never seen vegetables from a garden before. They couldn't get over the freshness of it. It's a reflection of all the things I think this challenge can bring to them: Getting in touch with environmental issues and food access, and seeing energy from all levels. Whether you are sustainability-minded or not, it's so universal."

At the end of the week, Lauzzana was tired, but pleased.

"It is great to be a part of something that is improving the district and people's perception of the district. There are a lot of bad stories out there [about Detroit], and what I've seen since I've been here is a whole lot of good stories that people aren't paying attention to, so this is a great way to showcase the good work we are doing so people become aware of it. Parents and teachers are very enthusiastic and excited."

What does the future hold?

Although Go Green week was a successful start, there is still a lot of work ahead. "Our oldest building was built in 1892. We have a great start, but there is still a lot of work to be done," Lauzzana said.

The Go Green Challenge numbers are calculated in April 2013, and awards will be given out in May 2013 at an award ceremony.

[image credits: Detroit Public Schools, Alessandra Carreon]

Andrea Newell headshotAndrea Newell

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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