Maddy Mangi, left, and Maya Umerov-Todoroki, give a tour of an area with solar panels at Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. The girls are part of the Eco-Action Team at the school, which was designed and built to produce as much energy as it uses. That’s called “net zero.” (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

At Discovery Elementary in Arlington, the building isn’t just a place students learn. It’s something they learn from.

Discovery, which opened in 2015, is what’s called a “net-zero” school. That means it was designed and built to produce as much energy as it uses over the course of a year.

It’s doing that thanks in part to the people inside.

“We didn’t just want to be a ‘green’ building, we wanted to be a ‘green’ school,” Principal Erin Russo said. “I have been so impressed with students. They grab onto [the idea].”

Getting in on the action

One way the school has gotten kids interested in the school’s “green” focus is the Eco-Action Team. About 75 kids in kindergarten through fifth grade attend monthly meetings not only about saving energy, but about recycling, gardening, healthy living and consuming less.

“I like that our school is always helping the environment,” said team member Maya Umerov-Todoroki, a fifth-grader. “It becomes kind of like a hobby.”

Or even a game, added classmate Maddy Mangi, also a member of Eco-Action.

“We had a blackout day where we tried to use the least amount of electricity,” she said.


Students explain which bins in the school’s Dining Commons are for which kind of waste. Members of the Eco Action Team said they have helped younger students learn the system. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

At lunch, the students take recycling to a level not seen in most schools. Between rows of tables in the Dining Commons, there are seven bins for sorting food waste, trash and recycling, including one bin just for squeezable fruit and yogurt.

“It was a little confusing, but then I saw the pictures,” third-grader Harper Spotts said of bin labels, especially helpful for students just learning to read.

The school also donates uneaten food to the Arlington Food Assistance Center and produces some of what is served at lunch.

“In our class, we’re growing radishes and lettuce,” said Liam Campbell, a third-grader. The effort is also a science lesson on how plants can grow without soil in what’s called a hydroponic garden.


Discovery’s entry features a solar calendar, one of the ways environmental learning has been incorporated into the public school’s design. Some of the many large windows, which reduce the need for electrical light, can be seen at left. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Follow the LEED-er

Even those students not on the Eco-Action Team can’t help but notice that their school environment is all about the environment. The grade levels each have a theme related to the Earth or sky. As kindergartners they are Backyard Adventurers, and they reach Galaxy Voyagers by fifth grade. Related signs are everywhere.

This schoolwide focus on the environment is unusual, even for schools that aim to save energy, according to Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, an organization that helps people construct buildings that are good for humans and the planet.

“That is something we wish every LEED-certified school would do, but it’s not always the case,” Heming said. “They are a shining example.”

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and there are about 2,000 schools in the United States that have some level of certification. Discovery is the first school and third project to receive the council’s highest honor, LEED Zero Energy certification.

“Often a school leader and teachers are put into a school building they didn’t know much about,” Heming said. “A lot of times they don’t know.”


A digital dashboard near the school office shows how much energy the school is producing and using in real time. Although the school was built to be “net zero,” it’s actually producing more energy than it’s using. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

But Discovery staff and students were on board from the beginning. The school has become a showpiece, and many educators, architects and builders have come to tour the building. The energy-saving features are not all easy to spot.

One that is obvious are large windows that let natural light pour inside, reducing the need for electric lights (all of which are LED).

From the upper level, it’s possible to see some of the solar panels that cover the roof. They power classroom interactive whiteboards and warm water for the cafeteria, among other things.

Hidden beneath the soccer field are geothermal wells that use the stable temperature underground to heat and cool the building. And construction crews made sure to seal any cracks that could have let cold air escape in summer or warm air in the winter.

If anyone wants to check how Discovery is doing energywise, they can stop by the digital dashboard by the front office or even call it up on the school’s website. So far the reports have been positive, as in “net positive.” It’s the only building in the D.C. area to produce more energy than it uses over a year, Heming said.

Hemings sees more schools looking to adapt Discovery’s model, which not only saves energy but also provides new ways to teach and learn.

“Even 20 years ago we had a lot of schools that were rows of tables and chairs and the teacher talks to you. Most schools today, that’s just not the way students learn,” she said. “There’s a pretty big change in the ways schools are being designed.”