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The Kansas City Star

More Schools Are Riding An Eco-Friendly Green Wave

Melodee Hall Blobaum

Jacob Chapman wants to plant a rooftop garden at Olathe South High School. He encourages classmates to recycle plastic bottles and paper. And he would like them to reduce their use of disposables in the school cafeteria."Our school is farther along than some, but I'm sure we could do more," he said.1003 05

Chapman, 18, like other students around the nation, is a green kid who is working to make his school greener as he learns more about the environment.

And bit by bit, Matt Riggs of the Mid-America Regional Council is seeing Kansas City-area school districts start to practice what they teach.

Riggs, the outreach coordinator for MARC's solid waste management district, said the shade of green varies, but many districts are reducing energy and water use, taking steps to reduce school-bus emissions or building green buildings.

What pleases him most are when those practices are linked to what kids learn in the classroom.

"Then the school becomes the model by which kids can see things in action," he said. "... It's more of a holistic approach."

In the North Kansas City district, for example, the new Staley High School will be a giant teaching tool, said Jeff Vandel, the district's assistant director of operations and maintenance.

"Each student who attends that school will learn about environmental issues, and specifically how that school is environmentally friendly," he said.

Scheduled to open next year, Staley High is expected to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification for its energy-saving and earth-friendly construction.

Blue Valley schools started using the best practices defined by the U.S. Green Building Council even before buildings could earn a LEED designation, said Dave Hill, the district's executive director of facilities and operations.

Hill said that as the growing district added buildings, planners oriented the structures for maximum daylight, chose adhesives and floor tiles that did not emit fumes and chose windows and mechanical systems that saved energy.

With each new building, the district fine-tunes the design based on what worked and what teachers and parents preferred, Hill said.

Blue Valley was the first district in the nation to receive the Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Model of Sustained Excellence award. But Hill said that the main reason for going green is it's the right thing to do.

"Not only is it good for the environment, but most importantly for us, it creates exceptional learning environments for kids," he said.

Going green can save money, too.

Fifteen years ago, Olathe schools began controlling thermostat settings and installing energy-saving lights, said Bob Courtney, the district's energy manager.

New buildings - 21 in the last 15 years - were built with energy efficiency in mind.

Courtney said that although the district has nearly doubled the square footage of its buildings since 1992, electricity consumption has risen only 45 percent, and natural-gas use has increased only 2 percent.

But Courtney likes to measure the energy savings another way: with a computer program that calculates it in terms of trees and cars. Over the last 15 years the district's efforts have had roughly the same effect as removing 39,400 cars from the road or planting 81,700 acres of trees.

Still, at least one parent wonders whether schools could do more, particularly in the cafeteria.

Jerri Campbell of Olathe said she was surprised to see disposable trays, plates, bowls and flatware when she ate lunch earlier this year with her daughter, a first-grader at Ravenwood Elementary School.

"They're teaching children to use a product for 10 minutes and then throw it away," Campbell said.

Campbell said she would like the district to investigate other options: reusable trays, dishes and silverware or more earth-friendly disposables.

Scott Kingery, Olathe's director of food services, said that the district put a great deal of research into the decision to switch to polystyrene trays eight years ago.

Kingery said reusable trays use up water when they are washed. Paper products cannot be recycled because they are soiled with food. Kingery said that when the polystyrene trays go to landfills, they don't biodegrade - but that also means that they don't leach chemicals into groundwater.

"Polystyrene was chosen because we feel that it probably has the least negative impact on the environment," he said.

The disposable lunch trays caught the attention of Tim Oberhelman's student naturalist class last year at Olathe South. The students, including Jacob Chapman, gathered a day's worth of the trays that stood 22 feet high. The students then considered how they might keep the trays out of landfills.

Their best answer? Reduce use.

"If you're just getting a slice of pizza, all you really need is a plate," Chapman said.

His interest in the environment stems from a love of science and the outdoors. Chapman carpools to school, and belongs to the Eco Club, which leads recycling efforts.

And with the approval of administrators, Chapman hopes to make the rooftop garden a reality. It would help insulate the classroom over which it is built, clean the air and capture rainwater that otherwise would run off into the parking lot.

It also could capture something else, Chapman said.

"Kids could go out after school and help with it. It will catch more kids' interest than just sitting in a classroom."

For more examples of how schools are turning green, go to

© 2007 Kansas City Star

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