Kevin: During the pandemic, many schools experienced heightened concern from parents and staff about indoor air quality, and with the rising cost of energy, districts everywhere are thinking about how to operate more efficiently. For schools today and tomorrow, sustainability is increasingly essential. In what ways do buildings contribute to children's health, well-being, and development? What are some ways to make school buildings more sustainable on a budget? How can school districts address the unique needs of their communities? And by the way, what might the physical school of the future look like? This is What I Want to Know, and today I'm joined by Anisa Heming to find out.
Kevin: Anisa Heming is the director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization dedicated to making buildings and communities more sustainable. Anisa is an architect by profession with a focus on environmental sustainability in school buildings. Today, she joins us to discuss how we can improve schools and make our communities more environmentally friendly. Anisa, welcome to the show.
Anisa: Thanks for having me.
Kevin: So, we're going to talk about environmental sustainability as it relates to schools, but this is an area that doesn't always seem to be top of mind for folks. Before we get into some of the discussion, though, I really want to hear about how you gravitated toward this space, because you were studying architecture, and then at some point in time, you got into this line of work. Now I'm assuming when you were a young girl; you weren't thinking about school sustainability.
Anisa: No, definitely not. I mean, kids are always soaking in messages we give them early, and for me, environmentalism was always something that was around when I was growing up. So my dad biked me to school, and we did a lot of environmental practices in the home and that sort of thing, but I saw that as just a normal thing that we were doing. I didn't connect it to a career path necessarily, and also, in architecture, when I was studying, it was sort of early in the green building movement, so the LEED rating system had just been released a couple years earlier, and it wasn't really mainstream. So there wasn't a lot going on when I was in school, especially in undergrad, about green building or environmental stuff within architecture, and so I was just looking for other opportunities to use architecture in a meaningful way.
And a former internship supervisor that I had at a different firm had started working with a Clinton Climate Initiative after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and she was one of these people who just connects dots and just brings partners together in this very cool way. It's a very special talent. And she had convinced the school district that if she could get a lot of partners for them to help, they were going to commit to building the schools back in a green way, and it wasn't really until I started doing the work that I could see how deeply meaningful it was for kids and for teachers.
Kevin: I'm struck by the fact that your inner voice told you, you wanted to do something, as you said, more meaningful. And I have conversations with young people from time to time, starting with my own son, about following that voice irrespective of your education, your training. At the end of the day, you've got to find something that makes getting up and going to work worthwhile, and also you can tell, obviously, because you're stuck in this space, that there were some jolting aspects to that new reality from going to design these kinds of homes for folks who have means, to working in a city and with the school district that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina, so talk a little bit about that.
Anisa: When I got there, I was really focused on helping them with the new school builds, and so there's a lot of just planning, review and training staff and just doing the work of making sure that the buildings would be built well. But midway through the time that I was there — and I was there for two years — I got a grant from the EPA to hire an indoor air quality manager for the district, and she was doing site visits to schools that were already open, that had been operating for years and that were not going to be rebuilt anytime soon. And I went along with her to those site visits, and I could not believe some of the spaces that we were going into. I would never want to spend time there or send my kids there, and it's not unique to New Orleans. But it was such a jolt to see the kinds of learning environments that some kids and teachers were having to be in, and that was a new reality for me.
Kevin: I hear from school district leaders. In fact, we've had several superintendents on this show, and they spend a lot of their days juggling priorities. And that's why when we opened the show and I talked about this, it isn't often a top-of-mind issue for many school boards, school district leaders, who haven't really thought about the physical structure. And their idea of a building project is based on replicating what they had, just newer and improved if you will, but without thinking about the angles and solar panels or what have you. For many folks, when they hear that, they say, "Well, is that really a priority, when we're trying to make sure that we can get the right reading program in place?" And so, talk a little bit about the work you do at the Center for Green Schools and how you navigate around that reality.
Anisa: Yeah. That's an important question. So, the Center for Green Schools focuses on supporting and training the people who do the work of sustainability within school systems, so that's at a system level, making decisions about contracts and services and priorities of the school district and that sort of thing, and these are the people who are sometimes in the position of an energy manager or sometimes an indoor air quality manager or risk management, environmental services, or environmental health, lots of different position titles, but they're all doing this work that we define as what it means to be a sustainable school. And so, what we think a sustainable school is, is one that has decreased environmental impact, a positive impact on health and wellness and a school that teaches kids about sustainability and improves sustainability literacy among students.
Kevin: I'm also struck by this notion that through tragedy comes opportunity, and so many people who've been involved in the work of education and working with schools and children have talked about the tragedy of the pandemic leading to opportunities. And before, one of your main gateway areas was through the pocketbook, energy savings, what have you; we can help you out. How do you take advantage of this window to make sure you maximize on getting more sustainable schools and that that's a priority inside school districts?
Anisa: Yeah, that's a great question, and I certainly learned that lesson after the tragedy of the hurricanes in New Orleans. There was a lot of receptiveness at that point to new things. People say, "Well, it wasn't working before." We have this moment right now where we feel like we have a little more support, and we want to take advantage of it. And that is happening certainly right now in the indoor air quality and energy space and in the climate action space. But because of COVID and indoor air quality spaces, there's a lot of local focus there. And we are trying to work at every level, because decision making at schools: most of it is local, most of it is the school board and the superintendent deciding what's important, but there's also funding coming from the federal government, and there are decisions that the states are making about how to allocate funding that's coming from the federal government for COVID relief, and all of that is happening right now.
And so, that's been a really big focus of ours: trying to leverage the resources that are coming for COVID relief for school systems into these long-term benefits for school systems. So there's a lot of conversation right now, for instance, about ESSER dollars, the COVID relief dollars from the federal government. It's hard for school systems to figure out how to use them in a way that's not going to lead to some sort of cliff in the future. If you pay teachers more, are you going to be able to keep paying them more? If you hire teachers now, are you going to be able to keep them on? I'm all for more money for teachers, but I also know that those are really difficult questions for school systems, and spending some of this money on durable improvements to facilities to make the air cleaner and better for teachers and students is a long-term investment. So, you put the money in now, and you get benefits for it years from that investment. So this one-time infusion of cash is actually made for facilities investments; it is so ripe for it.
Kevin: And I've heard many superintendents say they've got to be very careful to make sure these dollars that are available during COVID aren't gobbled up. And at the end of the day, there are ongoing commitments that they have to figure out a way to fund. And I do see where the work you do is tailor-made for these dollars. How are school districts responding to these conversations? Particularly since it seems like they're very well suited to the intended purpose of making sure that we improve those resources in the school relating to air quality and sustainability.
Anisa: It's a really interesting picture. A lot of districts are taking advantage of the funds to invest in their heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems: their HVAC systems. There are a good number of districts that are hesitating or have been hesitating on investing in facilities with this money, because they're not used to investing facilities money, or federal money, excuse me, in facilities because it's not usually allowed, actually.
Kevin: That's right. No, you're right.
Anisa: So, they don't really understand the requirements. They're a little bit nervous about the money not being approved or them getting in trouble later for having spent the money in a way that they didn't understand or something like that. So, there's a lot of trepidation about spending the money on facilities. It is absolutely allowed — just for the sake of listeners — it's absolutely allowed, but it's made some folks nervous who aren't used to the intricacies of federal funding.
Kevin: Let me change gears a little bit and talk about this notion of the future of schools, because many people are opining — I'm one of them — and talk about what the classroom of tomorrow will look like. Particularly, again, as a result of the pandemic, we know there's going to be this mixture of online learning. The virtual experience, technology advances, artificial intelligence, virtual reality: all these are going to come into play in the future of school. But the future of school buildings, I mean: what does that look like in terms of integrating all the things that need to be integrated, in terms of the vision of education and learning going forward. But when you work with a school district and they want to build a new school that is forward-looking, what kind of conversations would you have?
Anisa: Yeah. So, the first conversation we normally have is about trying to go as close to net zero energy as possible, and that is because it's possible. We know how to do it. And it's also — schools are really perfect for that goal because the school system is going to own this school for a long time, so the expense on energy over the course of the life cycle of that school building is enormous. And so, the benefit you get by trying to target a really low energy usage upfront is huge over time, so that's the first conversation. And a lot of school systems are starting to do schools that are targeting net zero energy usage. So, that means using as little energy to run the building as possible, and then what you do use, trying to offset that with renewables, like solar panels. So, that's happening more and more; we've got a lot of examples of that around the country.
There's also a lot of really great research now on what makes for a good learning environment in the classroom. So there's great research on the fact that daylight is very important, which is something that our designers forgot about for a little while there, in the seventies and eighties. So really, as a parent, I'm excited to see that that is definitely coming back from a school design perspective. But there's really good research on, not only does that cut down on some energy usage in some ways for lighting, but daylight actually helps regulate our hormones. And so, having daylight during the day for a space that you're learning within is great at keeping you alert and awake, and naturally our bodies know that that's the time to be awake. So, it's important to give cues like that to our hormones and to the way that our bodies work.
Kevin: Anisa, I have one other question; this is what I really want to know because green schools, in effect, are environmentally sustainable schools, and when you talk about designing green spaces for children, it really begs the ultimate question, can green schools enhance learning outcomes for students? And in your experience working with school leaders and the research you've seen, if that's the case, how so?
Anisa: We know that the design of learning environments can impact how well students learn in very concrete ways, so when we were talking about daylight earlier, there are studies that connect: better daylight means better focus, better test scores; that is very clear. Better air quality and temperature control are also a very direct line to the way that students learn and retain information and do all the things that we hope they do at school. There's also some indication that environmental topics in the classroom actually really help with engagement because of the agency that kids feel around action within their communities. aAnd so, there's some really great research on that as well. Views of nature, access to nature absolutely has an impact on the way that students feel and learn in school. So, there are a lot of individual elements of green schools that we know for a fact lead to better learning outcomes for students. But daylight, for instance, so daylight, we know, like I said, has an impact on student hormones and awakeness and that sort of thing; it also can help us use less lighting energy in a classroom.
So, you're bringing in daylight, using less electric light; therefore you need to make sure that your building envelope is tight and is keeping out the heat that comes from the sun when you get daylight. And often what that means is a tighter building envelope in general, which then can lead to reduced energy losses in cold weather or elsewhere. So, it's kind of this system that feeds off of itself in generating energy savings and in improving the actual learning environment to bring in that daylight. So when you're talking about a building, you can look at it like a living system, and if you tweak one part of it, you've got to look at how that tweak impacts the rest of the building. And often the things that we're doing to improve the learning environment can actually improve the performance of the building, which is a cool systems approach to the question that you posed.
Kevin: Yeah. Anisa Heming. Thank you for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Anisa: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media, that's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Anisa Heming is the director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization dedicated to making buildings and communities more sustainable. She is an architect by training, focusing on—and a career dedicated to—environmental sustainability in school buildings.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.