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Titans of Ecology

Juniors Grace Goodwin, J.W. Wilson and Blair Shipp eat lunch at the new environmentally friendly T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. A rooftop garden over the cafeteria helps reduce the amount of heat the building absorbs, and skylights allow in more sunshine.
Juniors Grace Goodwin, J.W. Wilson and Blair Shipp eat lunch at the new environmentally friendly T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. A rooftop garden over the cafeteria helps reduce the amount of heat the building absorbs, and skylights allow in more sunshine. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

At the brand-new T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, a modern "green" school, students say the environmentally friendly design has led to a serious lifestyle change: They can't doze in class anymore because sunlight pours in from practically every angle.

And in another tectonic shift in student mentality, the urge to scrawl graffiti appears to have vanished.

"It's so nice right now that everyone would feel guilty making a mark on the desks," Grace Goodwin, 16, a junior, said while eating lunch last week in a cafeteria with four skylights and exposed ductwork. "Everyone in Alexandria, even people who don't have kids in school, paid for this."

In the Washington region and elsewhere, local governments are spending big money on a new generation of schools designed to be sensitive to the environment. The campuses -- often equipped with the trappings of an upscale hotel, such as waterless urinals and motion-sensing light systems -- stand in sharp contrast to schools with mold, chipped ceilings and more fluorescent light than natural light.

At T.C. Williams, classroom ceilings are sloped to disperse light more efficiently, giving the space a futuristic feel. A rooftop garden over the cafeteria reduces the amount of heat the building absorbs. And then there are the seemingly nuclear-powered hand dryers in the restrooms, which can be heard from classrooms. "They blow your skin off," said J.W. Wilson, 16, a junior. "But there's no paper towels. So that's nice."

The number of schools nationwide built or designed under strict environmental guidelines has increased in the past seven years, according to the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, which certifies new buildings of all types under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.

Sixty schools nationwide have obtained council certification, including three in the Washington area: John M. Langston High School Continuation Program in Arlington, the middle school of the private Sidwell Friends School in the District and Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in Montgomery County. At Sidwell Friends, the middle school's protective skin is made of western red cedar reclaimed from wine fermentation barrels. And at Great Seneca Creek, students have cubbyholes that look like wood but are made of wheat.

More than 360 others, including T.C. Williams, are applying for certification. In 2000, only four were in the pipeline.

"These schools create a healthy and productive educational environment. And they save huge amounts of money over the lifetime of a school," said Rachel Gutter of the building council. "What if I said: 'Let's build a school. It's going to increase test scores. It's going to increase your teacher retention. It's going to be a more comfortable and healthy environment. And by the way, I am going to save you $100,000 a year.' "

The council, which charges schools more than $2,000 to become certified, says green schools save on energy, water and health-care costs. It also cites research findings that students score higher on reading and math tests in classes with sunlight.

Several T.C. Williams students said the windows and skylights help them concentrate. School officials calculate that 70 percent of interior spaces have an outside view.

"The bright lights keep you awake. In my old classrooms last year, they had these yellow type of lights that were dim," Grace told her friends during lunch.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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