As Mike Cannon walks the halls of the bright, airy schools that have risen in the northwestern corner of Sacramento, Calif., he recalls being a student in a more claustrophobic setting. “I went to school in a particularly nice dungeon, built in 1912,” says the assistant superintendent for facilities and planning in the Natomas Unified School District. He chuckles at the attitude of his childhood teachers: “Windows? You don’t need windows. You would just look out and be distracted!”
Just the opposite is true, Cannon insists. “Having a great deal of natural daylight in the classrooms is much more advantageous for student learning—whether you have a higher proportion of window to wall, or use skylights and solar tubes.” Abundant use of daylight, which reduces energy consumption and concurrentutility bills, is one of the myriad design concepts that have turned Natomas into a national leader in the green schools movement.
Sharing Bright Ideas
The 12,000-student district won a Green Apple Award last fall for “excellence in reducing local impact on climate change” from the San Francisco-based Collaborative for High Performance Schools. CHPS is the nation’s first green building rating program developed for schools and sponsors the annual Greentools for Healthy Schools Conference, which was held in Sacramento last September. Day two of that conference took place at NUSD’s brand new H. Allen Hight Learning Center, a combination elementary and middle school hailed for its “passive design” energy efficiency.
“The walls of H. Allen Hight are exceedingly thick, very well insulated, and the windows are double-paned,” Mike Cannon explains during a private tour of the campus. “We used recycled construction materials and have a heating, ventilation and cooling system that exceeds federal standards for air circulation and quality.” Flooring materials throughout the complex are free of the toxins associated with standard construction. The central administration building, shared by the elementary and middle schools, is also topped by the first “green roof” in the region. Its surface, covered with a foot of dirt, was planted with nonflowering strawberry, blue fescue and creeping thyme—plants that can help cool the building on Sacramento’s notorious 100-degree days, buffer urban noise, and clean the atmosphere.
A short drive from H. Allen Hight is Inderkum High School, a two-story structure that has won awards not only for its “active design” features, such as solar roof panels, but for the passive use of geothermal energy for heating and cooling. Radiator-like water pipes buried deep in the ground keep the four-year-old school’s HVAC units cool. Meanwhile, an ingenious venting system in the central atrium and cafeteria draws fresh, chilled air up through the floor and out a set of open columns.
Deep Breaths, Deep Thoughts
Districts skeptical of the benefits of investing in improved lighting and air might be swayed by recent research, according to the California State Board of Education. Studies from Carnegie Mellon University and the U.S. Green Building Council show a 38.5 percent reduction in asthma rates in green buildings, as well as a 33 percent increase in the number of students testing at grade level for reading and math, after they were moved to a green school.
What advice does Mike Cannon have for financially strapped school districts that have no hope of building new, high-tech schools in the current economy? “You can go through and retrofit,” he says, something NUSD has been doing consistently with its older schools. “You can get light into the classrooms very costeffectively. Doing set points and putting timers on HVAC control systems will save you a great deal of money.”
He also recommends doing a cost-benefit analysis of athletic field materials: “We retrofitted all of our high schools with synthetic track and field because it takes less water and maintenance. Over an eight-year period, it’s cheaper than doing turf.”
Some green practices save money; others earn it. Cannon points to the work of Traffic Tamers, a parent group that developed an innovative walk-to-school program at NUSD’s Bannon Creek Elementary School. Thanks to Traffic Tamers, the district was recently awarded $1.5 million in state and city grants to develop additional safe walking and biking routes for students.
A team approach is the key to making environmental advancements in any district, Cannon says. He credits the huge, combined support of Natomas’ forward-thinking school board, its science-minded superintendent, Steve Farrar, and parents eager to offer their urban children a green future. Community partnerships are actually woven into daily life in Natomas, where schools have been designed to share athletic fields, classrooms, parks and libraries with neighborhood groups during nonschool hours.
“That’s one of the hallmarks of this district,” Cannon says. “We’re trying to make sure that the community takes ownership of the schools.”
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer based in northern California.