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L.A.'s green schools: Propane buses, solar panels and environmental education

March 8, 2010 |  1:35 am

LAUSDschoolbusWhat with budget cuts, teacher layoffs and increasing class sizes, the situation at L.A. Unified School District is grim. But there’s yet another issue. With 14,000 buildings housing 700,000 students spread over 710 square miles serviced by 1,300 school buses, the district is one of the largest users of water and energy in the state of California.

Now an ambitious sustainability program has been implemented to reduce the district’s environmental impact and, in the process, save money, improve student performance and serve as a hands-on teaching tool.

In March, hundreds of decades-old buses will be upgraded to less-polluting, more-energy-efficient propane models. Eight schools, out of a planned 250, will have solar power installed. Still others will be outfitted with "smart" irrigation systems to reduce the millions of gallons of imported water the district guzzles each day, more than half of which is used for outdoor watering.

"One of our goals is to be the No. 1 greenest school district in the country," said Yoli Flores Aguilar, an L.A. Board of Education member who co-sponsored the Green LAUSD resolution in 2007. "We want to find ways to save money and to be more efficient and effective in how we use our resources, so we can put more dollars in to the classroom."

Building on a 2005 recycling initiative, LAUSD is striving to slash greenhouse-gas emissions, energy use and water use by 10% from 2007 levels by 2013. It also will install 50 megawatts of solar photovoltaics – a move that could save the district more than $20 million annually on an electricity bill that normally runs $85 million.

So far, most of the changes have been funded with voter-approved state bond measures, utility incentives from Southern California Edison and the L.A. Department of Water and Power and grants from such agencies as the Air Quality Management District. An additional $120 million in federal Clean Renewable Energy Bonds also may be available to the LAUSD to help it go solar.

"If we can demonstrate that it’s possible to be green in a cost-effective manner in a school district as large as L.A., it can be done almost anywhere," said Randy Britt, director of sustainability initiatives for LAUSD. "This will build assets that will then generate savings in the general fund going forward."

Under a program unveiled for the 2009-10 school year, individual schools will keep a portion of the money they have saved with conservation efforts instituted on their own sites, such as fixing leaky faucets and turning off lights in rooms that aren’t in use.

The 44 campuses the district plans to build by 2013 will be designed to comply with water and energy efficiency standards of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, which also encourages better classroom acoustics, air quality, mold prevention and natural lighting. "People think of the whole green issue as focusing on energy, but it’s actually only one-fifth energy. It’s also focused on air quality, land use and human comfort," said Vivian Loftness, professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University and co-chair of a 2008 National Research Council report on green schools. "There’s a much broader set of issues."

For the green schools study, a 5-person panel of medical doctors, school officials and building experts looked at research linking green schools to health and student performance. It found that many green building practices aided learning. Insulated walls and double-paned windows don’t just save energy, they also reduce noise pollution. Increasing natural light in classrooms doesn’t just save electricity, it triggers melatonin production, which leads to healthy sleep cycles, and it makes textbooks and other materials more colorful and compelling to students, Loftness said. Using non-VOC paints reduces respiratory problems such as asthma – the No. 1 cause of absenteeism in schools.

It’s the intersection of green architectural practices and improved learning -- as well as teaching opportunities -- that led to Project FROG, a San Francisco firm that designs and manufactures zero-energy classrooms and portable trailers, such as the one at a LAUSD charter school opening this fall. The Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in San Fernando will feature recycled denim insulation, low- and no-VOC interiors and a tall, pitched roof that allows so much natural light that overhead lights may not even be needed. The school itself will be a training center to prepare high school students for careers in California’s budding green economy.

"My mantra is, use what you have in the house," said Jay Gonzales, an advisor in LAUSD’s Office of Curriculum and Instruction who is working to infuse its core math, science, language-arts and social-studies curriculum with hands-on learning opportunities resulting from the district’s sustainability initiatives.

This spring, Gonzales is piloting a project that will get students involved in mapping water-efficient irrigation systems at their schools. It sends students out of the classroom and into the field to measure the water used by the current system and to devise better strategies, all of which will be incorporated into an existing math class.

"LAUSD’s mandate is to educate, so everything we do should somehow be connected," said Gonzales, who hoped to roll out additional programs that would marry the district’s alternative-fuel buses with automotive learning, school gardens with classes in the culinary arts and solar photovoltaic installations with science instruction.

"Kids like to do things," Gonzales said. "If we give them all this knowledge and we don’t give them an opportunity to see how it works in practice, we’re short-circuiting something that’s naturally going for us with children, and that is their innate curiosity. We have an opportunity to do that and also save the district and the state of California and the city of L.A. water and power and fuel."

Finally, a win-win for the troubled LAUSD.

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times

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