When the Shallowater (Texas) Independent School District won a $1.2 million Reading First grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2003, officials were overjoyed. But the money came with a stipulation: The district would have to find a way to support its Reading First program after the federal dollars ran out in 2007. When the program led to substantial achievement gains for the district’s elementary students, the need to avoid the “funding cliff” became urgent, and officials in the 1,400-student district northwest of Lubbock began looking for alternative ways to sustain the program.
Rather than trying to raise money, officials decided to look for ways to save it. Quickly zeroing in on energy conservation, they learned that they could take steps—replacing older air conditioners with newer, more efficient ones, adding automatic timers for lights and HVAC—that would generate savings of about $70,000 per year. These measures would help, but since the looming funding gap was $125,000, they needed to find more.
Superintendent Phil Warren recalls exploring additional energy-saving steps, including using buses that run on natural gas, installing solar panels on schools, and harnessing energy from geothermal sources. None of these proved to be feasible at the time, but when officials looked into wind energy, they found what they were looking for. “There is plenty of wind in West Texas,” says Warren.
Officials learned that with five 50-kilowatt wind turbines, they could meet approximately 20 percent of the district’s energy needs and thereby save enough money to cover the remaining funding gap for the reading program. The purchase of these turbines, which were installed in 2007, came with a five-year production guarantee that assures the district of a savings of about $60,000 to $70,000 per year, depending on energy prices. The state covered 70 percent of the cost of this $700,000 project, as it also did for the earlier energy-efficiency enhancements.
Read Like the Wind
For Mary Hughes, principal at Shallowater Elementary School, maintaining the reading program was a top priority. “When I came to this campus seven years ago, we were performing borderline at best,” she recalls. Then with the implementation of Reading First, reading scores rose substantially. Hughes identifies staff development as the aspect of the program that has made the biggest difference. Teachers can now use data to discern what each individual child needs. “It has dramatically changed the way they teach,” she says. “We now know how to teach reading.”
Shallowater’s success in reading achievement led to its being chosen by the state of Texas as one of just 18 Reading First demonstration sites (out of over 700 schools using Reading First) for the 2009-2010 school year, an honor that also comes with a $300,000 grant. This money, coupled with a one-year Reading First grant the district won after the initial grant expired, means that the district has yet to use any of the money it has saved from the wind turbines and other energy conservation measures.
Hughes is grateful that the program has been maintained, but she also believes that the district’s decision to go green has intrinsic value. “This is the way every school district needs to go,” she says.
Here Comes the Sun
The district has saved a key program by finding a way to generate electricity that could end up yielding $1,890,000 in savings over 30 years. So what’s next? Warren sees even more savings possible through alternative energy generation. He reports that the district has submitted a grant to the state energy conservation office for a $430,000 solar project. Fortunately, West Texas also has plenty of sunlight too.
Don Parker-Burgard is associate editor.