Michael Bloomberg announced in 2008 that he wanted city buildings to lower their energy consumption by 30% within a decade, one area seemed ripe for reductions: the city's 1,700 schools, spread across 1,200 buildings.
Studded with new technology like smartboards
and energy-gobbling appliances such as boilers, schools accounted for
about a quarter of the city's overall energy use.
So John Shea, the head of school facilities for the Department of
Education, decided to enlist an unlikely ally to shave energy costs:
On Friday, officials were scheduled to announce a competition for 30
schools participating in a pilot program that is run in conjunction with
Solar One, a nonprofit environmental education organization.
contest will award a total of $30,000 to the schools that reduce their
energy use the most.
"It is unusual to have a curriculum issue come out of the department
of the people who mop the floors and stock the toilet paper," Mr. Shea
acknowledged with a smile during a recent interview. But it was a
perfect fit, he said. "The fact is we've got school buildings all over
the city that are their own learning laboratories," he said.
The Green Design Lab—a pilot project
that started in 10 schools last year and has expanded to 30—brings Solar
One teachers into the schools for up to 24 weeks. Through lessons,
labs, and projects such as installing green roofs and gardens, Solar One
instructors spend one or two classroom periods a week teaching five
different units, including energy, air, water, materials and food. The
group hopes to expand to 150 schools in the next three years.
The Green Design Lab is not the only sustainability initiative being
embraced by New York City schools. On Thursday, the New York State
Education Department announced that it was joining the federal Green
Ribbon Schools program, which honors the most environmentally
The same day, the New York City Council approved
construction of the city's first "energy neutral" school.
But the Solar One program may be the most ambitious, bringing together custodians, principals and teachers.
It is largely privately funded: Organizers said they expected the
program to cost $900,000 this academic year, with 10% coming from the
Department of Education and the City Council.
"The basic premise of the program has
kind of a triple bottom line impact," said Executive Director Chris
Collins. "Reduce energy use, reduce CO2 emissions, and save the school
money and increase student knowledge."
Public School 187 in upper Manhattan reduced its energy use by 13%, saving about $3,700.
"We had squads of children in various grades responsible for turning
off the lights," said Principal Cynthia Chory, whose school won $5,000
for reducing its energy the most. "The students just kind of absorbed
Not every school has incorporated the program seamlessly.
"It's a really hard thing to sell, because today, teachers are asked
so much. Our education system has gone in the direction of
accountability; you know, more technology, high-stake tests," said
Gladys Hechavarria, a teacher who brought the program to her school,
P.S. 86 in the Bronx, this year. "Who am I to tell them to turn off the
Solar One teachers described their own challenges.
"It's funny, working with kids is just a breeze. It's when you
actually try to push for these little minor changes that we're trying to
make at the school it's the adults who kind of stand in the way," said
Anna Bakis, a 25-year-old Solar One instructor who is working at two
schools this year.
She was also surprised at the learning
curve among her students. "I assumed they would know about global
warming," she said. "When I ask who's heard of climate change or global
warming, they're like, 'Oh it's when the seasons change.'"
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Bakis commanded the attention of a
classroom in P.S. 86. Students clustered at tables, enthusiastically
debating how much energy was consumed by common objects around the
classroom, from computers to overhead projectors. Then Ms. Bakis armed
each group with a watt reader to find out the answers themselves.
Dalvin Lopez, 12, raised his hand to ask where he could purchase his own kilowatt reader.
"I just want to go the closest store when I get out of school and buy
myself one," he said after class, saying the program had "inspired me
in a big way."
As a result of the program he now wanted to become "a scientist," he said.
But his friend had an even more intriguing idea, he added. "She wants to be a mad scientist."