Washington area private schools compete in green contest

Dave Holzwarth of Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania shows students how to make biodiesel fuel at a sustainability conference last year in Alexandria.
Dave Holzwarth of Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania shows students how to make biodiesel fuel at a sustainability conference last year in Alexandria. (Susan Biddle/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2009

Norwood School started buying wind power. Potomac School converted its big yellow school buses to run on biodiesel. Sidwell Friends School kicked it up a notch with a green middle-school building that brought conversations about sewage treatment to the lips of D.C. high society. The solar panels that Bullis School bolted onto its roof this month were the latest volley in a green arms race that the area's private schools have waged for the past few years.

Although many public schools have gotten in the game, too, private schools have deeper pockets and more flexibility to pursue projects to woo families and be environmentally friendly. Some of the competition is tacit. But in the spring, 12 private schools from the Washington and Baltimore areas went head-to-head over reducing garbage and electricity use and increasing recycling.

Educators say gentle competition is a good way to teach students about energy use. (The many sport-utility vehicles that lumber up their driveways to drop off students, they say, is further incentive to bolster environmental education.) And investing in green buildings makes economic sense for schools in ways it doesn't for businesses, they say.

"A number of the things that we do in our market economy have the effect of shielding or clouding the whole concept of energy costs," said Tom Farquhar, head of Bullis School, which buys wind power exclusively, and, once the switch is flipped next month, will also draw electricity from 540 new solar panels atop its arts building. Most buildings aren't constructed by the people who will occupy them. Schools will reap benefits for decades to come, making projects more economically viable, Farquhar said.

The winner in the spring Day School Green Challenge was the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. In second place was the Woods Academy, a 300-student independent Catholic school in Bethesda. It cut its energy use by almost a fifth and increased its recycling compliance almost by half, although its trash production went up.

Farquhar said that at Bullis, which placed sixth, teachers had talked about energy consumption in class and the whole campus labored to make small changes such as keeping lights off, habits that have stuck with him. (Past interviews with him have been conducted in dimmed offices.) The school also tries to serve locally produced food in its cafeteria; Farquhar said he sometimes makes trips to orchards in the fall for crates of apples.

And at Green Acres School, which teaches 300 students in Rockville, a team of teachers, students and parents has been working to find ways to make the school greener, from increasing recycling to adding classes about the environment and thinking about geothermal energy, said school head Neal Brown. Like Bullis, Green Acres purchases electricity from wind sources. The school plans to join the green contest this spring.

At Sidwell Friends, the middle-school building that opened in 2007 draws architects and environmental enthusiasts from across the country, and the school highlights its locally sourced lunches.

Green issues are spreading to public schools as well. In the District, a bill introduced this month would require public schools to serve local produce, and a pilot program that serves local fruit and vegetables is in place at some elementary schools. There are similar efforts in Maryland and Virginia.

Public schools have also initiated green construction projects in the past few years. Students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria praised their naturally lighted classrooms after they opened in 2007. In Virginia, there are solar panels atop Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and in the District, on Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school.

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