Walking to a 'green' school: Impossible new-century dream?

 
Little Johnny and Jane are back in school ‐ but are we doing our best for him or her?

Put aside, for a moment, "No Child Left Behind" teaching issues. Ask instead: How are the kids getting to school? And when they get there, are their school buildings satisfactorily "green" and healthy?

Watch next week ‐ Wednesday October 3 ‐ for International Walk to School Day. Then check how many kids you see actually walking. In the 1950s and '60s, half of all children walked or biked to school. The latest survey count: 12 percent walk, 2 percent bike.

Why the big switch? School consolidations, plus rules requiring acres of parking at new school sites, have forced more and more schools to cheap land at the edge of town ‐ tough places to reach on foot or by bike.

But parents' judgments (or misjudgments) factor in too. Sometimes it's fear that a walking or biking child might get in a street accident. Except it now turns out that driving Johnny and Jane to school isn't such a safe choice after all. Seventy-five percent of school-trip child fatalities, and 84 percent of injuries, occur in passenger vehicles. And that doesn't even count parents' cars clogging roadways and polluting the air ‐ especially right beside schools.

Some parents worry about a kidnapping. But child abduction is mainly a milk carton phenomenon: it's horrifying when it happens, but actual stranger abductions amount to 100 to 130 a year nationwide; chances of any kid getting nabbed walking to school are less than one in a million.

But there is a really big danger: kids missing the exercise a walk or bike ride provides. Riding to school in a car, or taking a long school bus ride, means that kids are living ever more sedentary lives. In the 1960s, only 4 to 5 percent of American children were overweight; now the figure's several times that and rising. For many it's a precursor to hypertension, diabetes and heart disease by middle age.

The Safe Routes to School program, begun in Denmark in the 1970s, got its first U.S. foothold in the Bronx borough of New York in 1997, and has been spreading fast since. Some 300 nonprofits, government agencies and schools are now participating and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is supporting a multi-state outreach.

Activities range from "walking school buses" ‐ groups of children led to school by a parent ‐ to lobbying local governments to build or widen sidewalks, establish clearly-marked paths or bike lanes separated from roads, lower traffic speeds on school routes and establish safer crosswalks.

Congress in 2005 even appropriated $612 million to foster safer routes. If the initiative works, a first payoff may be healthier kids. But better learning, too. Exercise is proven to sharpen concentration, memory, learning, creativity, even mood. How better to arrive at school?

But what kind of school? A huge weight of evidence now indicates that schools constructed ‐ or refurbished ‐ to today's new "green" standards provide a stunning array of benefits.

What's the definition of "green"? The design needs to start with good lighting to encourage students to stay awake and on task ‐ and thereby feel good! This principle is called daylighting ‐ smart solar orientation of the building, then controlled admission of maximum natural light through windows and skylights.

Plus, kids can breathe easier because the building has cleaner air ‐ important for children who, because of their small size and rapid respiration rate, breathe a greater volume of air proportionately than adults. The air's made cleaner by good ventilation and using toxic-free, recyclable materials.

With reduced energy and water use, green schools save sufficient operating costs to make up fairly quickly for the premium in cost (averaging about 2 percent) of their higher-quality construction. But the improved designs make them so attractive and pleasant that student absenteeism and vandalism drop, even while faculty and staff performance improves.

Some green schools even carry the theme outdoors with vegetative roofs and gardens to help students understand and value their connection to the natural world.

A lot is cooking on the green schools front. California and seven other states ‐ New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut ‐ have adopted so-called the "Collaborative for High Performance Schools" criteria. Sixty schools nationwide have won the valued "LEED" environmental rating of the U.S. Green Building Council. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is urging Congress to provide funding for green school demonstration projects that provide evidence of their environmental, economic and health benefits.

But thousands of U.S. school districts rumble along with their same old off-the-shelf, lowest-possible-cost school designs. Towns resist paying for sidewalks or new pathways. And I've heard school administrators scoff- "Today's kids want to drive or be driven. You can't change it."

Well, perhaps we must. 
 
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