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.
Mary Ball, 16, also a junior, agreed. "I have a big problem with falling asleep in class," she told Grace. "Some of my classes didn't have windows at all last year. This year, it's easier for me to focus."
The new three-story T.C. Williams, home to about 2,000 students, cost about $98 million, which is much higher than the price of many regular high schools its size. Alexandria school officials said the facility's green features account for about $1.2 million of its cost. Still, some educators and parents expressed skepticism about the cost of green schools.
John Wilson, a commercial real estate salesman and the father of student J.W. Wilson, said he was surprised that he had not heard much protest about the school's cost. "I am happy that the students have the best of everything," Wilson said, "but I am not convinced that it always translates into a better education."
The Fairfax County system has poured money into several green projects for schools countywide rather than spending a lot of money on a single campus, Chief Operating Officer Dean Tistadt said. Fairfax has replaced old porous classroom windows, installed more energy-efficient light bulbs and covered some athletic fields with artificial turf to reduce irrigation costs. Tistadt said he is skeptical of rooftop gardens.
"Vegetative roofs are kind of sexy, but you're absorbing water and keeping it on the roof," he said. "If you have leaking problems, how do you find them? We also want to make sure we don't have mold or mildew problems."
It's rare to find a school system that ignores the green trend. Some states are writing legislation that requires all new public buildings be built with LEED standards, said Judy Marks, associate director of the federally funded National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.
For some school systems, it is not feasible to build a school like T.C. Williams. "We haven't discussed doing that because of the cost implications," said Randy Dasher, the Prince William County system's director of construction and planning services. "We've got a lot of kids in trailers."
T.C. Williams students vow an uncommon fealty to their new building. Many said they are resisting the impulse to mark up desks with doodles or bubble-lettered pronouncements of love. The greenness of the campus, they say, heightens the shame over vandalizing an expensive school, especially one whose main purpose is to be "sustainable" and last for a long time. Principal Mel Riddile said the school's new motto is based on the Texas mantra: "Don't mess with T.C."
As students talked at lunch about how they would never write graffiti in their new school, they sounded like ex-convicts wistful about previous transgressions.
"I've doodled my name or 'Titans,' " the school mascot, Mary said.
"I would write my name or draw a flower or a star or a heart," classmate Blair Shipp, 16, said.
"I drew stick figures," J.W. Wilson said.
Would they rat on someone who draws on a school desk or wall? Some things, even in the green school era, will not change.
"I wouldn't say something," Grace said, joking. "I wouldn't want to get beat up."