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Heeding Obama’s Call to Rebuild and Improve our Nation’s Schools

   /   Sep 15th, 2011Education, Interviews, National, New York City

During President Obama’s recent speech to Congress outlining his American Jobs Act, he acknowledged the state of America’s schools: “There are schools throughout this country that desperately need renovating. How can we expect our kids to do their best in places that are literally falling apart? This is America. Every child deserves a great school — and we can give it to them, if we act now.”

The US Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools is already heeding this call to action.

In July, the USGBC kicked off the Green Schools Fellowship program, which is designed to provide school districts with the tools and resources to support green building efforts and implement improvements to their facilities and operations.  If Congress passes the Jobs Act, $25 billion was promised for such school construction projects. Dowser sat down with fellowship manager Anisa Baldwin Metzger to talk about the program’s mission and the role that USGBC can play to ensure sustainability initiatives take root in our country’s educational facilities.

Dowser: The Green Schools Fellowship program kicked off this summer with the first two fellows. Tell me about how the fellowship works.
Metzger: The fellowship is a three-year program where USGBC selects and places sustainability directors in school districts. These fellows are committed to moving forward initiatives that the district wants to implement, but hasn’t had the capacity to do. These initiatives range from implementing comprehensive indoor air quality and moving recycling efforts forward, to getting teachers and students involved in energy savings, and even working on food sourcing for the district. The districts have to go through an application process in order to host a fellow, and there are a whole slew of things that we ask the district to identify for us in terms of their sustainability needs. This year, we received applications from 30 different districts that wanted a fellow and they had to provide details about what they wanted the fellow to work on. We then select the fellows based on their ability to meet the needs of the district where they will be working.

Which districts were selected and what kinds of sustainability initiatives will the fellows be focusing on in their districts?
Since we only had two fellowship spots for the launch, we decided to kick it off with two districts that we knew would be the best hosts for the first official year of the program. They are Boston Public Schools and the Sacramento Unified School District. Boston and Sacramento each have very different focus areas for the fellows and they were selected with that in mind. Our Sacramento fellow, Farah McDill, will focus more on school-based initiatives, so she will be working directly with students and teachers to help set up green teams within each school. She will work with these green teams to help them perform sustainability audits on their own schools, which will then be submitted to the district as suggestions for what each school needs to work on. So the Sacramento fellowship is very school-by-school oriented. In Boston, the district has a strong connection with the city of Boston, which is a leader in green building and energy initiatives. The school district has been working really hard on implementing a strategic approach to energy savings, so the Boston follow, Phoebe Beierle will be working more on district-level policies and procedures, such as streamlining the system for energy savings and taking on other green initiatives across the board.

What kind of background do the fellows have, and how much guidance do they get once they are placed in their districts?
One of the requirements for applying to the fellowship is that the applicants must have a graduate degree in organizational sustainability (the degree has different names depending on the school), or they need equivalent work experience. For example, a sustainability director at a corporation would have the appropriate background.

This year we got 75 qualified applicants. Our Boston fellow has a degree in environmental science and has worked in the Boston area for about five years with state and local agencies that give money towards green school efforts. She has a deep knowledge of green schools specifically in Boston.

Our Sacramento fellow has a master’s in construction management with a focus on sustainable building. In addition to working with a construction management firm for a number of years, through her graduate work she has also done research on creating green teams in schools and methods for getting teachers involved with sustainability efforts.

In terms of guidance, that is really the value that we bring through this program, especially for the districts. The school districts can hire their own sustainability director, but the value we bring is that we have a national reach and can do a search and find really stellar people to fill that position for them. Throughout the fellowship, we keep in close contact with the fellows and provide ongoing training and travel to conferences that are helpful to their work. We also connect them to a national network of sustainability officers.

Before your position as the fellowship manager, you were part of a USGBC pilot program where you worked in the New Orleans school district after Hurricane Katrina. How did your experience there inform the development of a dedicated fellowship program?
I started working in New Orleans in 2008. When Katrina happened, USGBC wanted to do something right away, but they held their enthusiasm until they saw the right opportunity. We didn’t want to just go in and do things that weren’t appropriate.

When they started looking at the rebuilding process, the school district there (with the help of great local advocates) decided that they were going to build all their new schools to a minimum of LEED Silver status. I was hired by USGBC at that point to go down there just as the schools were getting their feet under them. Initially most of my time there was spent helping the school district understand the LEED certification process and get standards implemented that would make the certification process quicker and easier for them.

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While I was working in New Orleans, I had simultaneously been seeing and hearing from districts around the country that they needed help with their sustainability efforts. They were telling me it was something they wanted to do but didn’t have the bandwidth to take it on.

In New Orleans, I had been sent a visitor who had a degree from Harvard, and she shadowed me in my job for a while. She had the exact skill set that these districts needed and that was the beginning of the idea for the fellowship.

I was seeing the need from the districts and also seeing the available workforce, so it was just a matter of matching them up. While I was finishing up my time in New Orleans, the idea for the fellowship program was proposed and then last summer, we secured a commitment from United Technologies Corporation to be the founding sponsor for the fellowship. As part of their gift, they are funding the first two fellows.

Given the growing demand within school districts to implement sustainability initiatives, how can USGBC respond to this widespread need and what are some of your goals for the fellowship program going forward?
The USGBC has been doing green schools work for a while. The LEED for Schools rating system came out in 2007 and there are many districts now that are pursuing LEED certifications. A really good example where that has become the standard is in Ohio; the state facilities commission there requires all of the schools across the state to accomplish LEED certification, so they have 250 projects in the pipeline.

The USGBC also established the Center for Green Schools last fall and it’s the center to ground all the work that various departments at our organization are doing around green schools. The center connects all the programs around the mission to implement sustainability initiatives and it shows the districts all we have to offer to help move that mission forward.

With the Green Schools Fellowship, we are planning on having a class of fellows each year and they’ll start in July, so we’ll be soliciting applications for the new class in January 2012. We’re currently working with several districts to secure the funding for that new group of fellows. Overall, we’re seeing that there’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm around this type of work, not just when we hire at USGBC, but also among people who are already in the workforce. I think a big part of accomplishing our goals is being able to capitalize on this growing interest in the green building movement and highlighting the impact that environmental sustainability will have for our schools.

Photo: Kimberly Moa

One Response

  1. NJ says:

    Children should learn in safe, bright, happy environments. Once those requirements are fulfilled, I believe we should focus on getting the best teachers into the buildings. I’m so tired of hearing about projects to rebuild schools which then open up to teach old, tired curriculums.