Making the Grade: Report Card on School Conditions

Leaky faucets. Classrooms that are too cold or too hot. Hundreds of pounds of food and thousands of gallons of milk thrown away. Inefficient and improperly designed lighting. These poor conditions, and more, plague many of our public schools, driving up operating costs, damaging our environment, and making teachers less effective in education our children. Nationwide, it would cost $271 billion to clear up deferred maintenance and bring our schools back up to code; an equal amount would be required to make them resource- efficient and high performing learning environments, according to a recent report from the Center for Green Schools.

Problems of this magnitude often seem overwhelming, particularly when it comes to existing buildings. Each individual building is a complicated environment that changes over time as a result of interactions between it and those who use it and maintain it. Over the past several months, Jill DeCoursey, Lauren Fuhry, Walker Wells, and I have been delving deep into the conditions at schools in Los Angeles, trying to break down the assessment and upgrade potential of existing school buildings into manageable chunks with a tool that could be easily adopted at a large scale.

Here in California, scalable tools are in desperate need as state policymakers consider how to spend upwards of $550 million annually for school energy efficiency upgrades made available through Proposition 39 (passed last November).

Using the Operations Report Card (ORC), developed by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPs) in collaboration with Global Green USA, we've been walking around schools with scientific instruments to measure lighting and sound levels in classrooms and test indoor air quality, analyzing energy and water bills, and – fun, fun, fun – doing "dumpster dives" to get a handle on what's going on in a school's waste stream. We also send out surveys to teachers so that we can blend qualitative impressions with our quantitative data.

The data we've collected, sometimes using a smartphone app we developed, is being fed into the ORC software to give the school a 1 to 100 score in each of seven areas: energy, water, waste, thermal comfort, air quality, lighting, and acoustics. In addition to scores, the ORC report offers actionable suggestions for how the schools might alter their operations or pursue building upgrades. Schools that get a score of at least 70 in all categories receive recognition as high performing.

While recognition is nice, it's not really what we're after. Instead we'd like to be a catalyst for focusing facilities and sustainability staff at the Los Angeles Unified School District on making upgrades to schools in ways that save the district money, enhance the learning environment, and reduce school's impact on the regional urban ecosystem. Our experience with green building rating systems like LEED is that a numerical score combined with suggestions for how to improve that score can be a very simple and powerful tool with decision-makers who are looking to balance priorities across a wide variety of school building types and conditions.

Just in the six schools we've been working in – Olive Vista Middle School, Audubon Middle School, Foshay Learning Center, First Street Elementary, Cardenas Elementary, and Escalante Elementary – we've encountered this wide variety, depressed by some things and inspired by others. Some notable things we've found:

  • Green Design Standards Matter. Two of the schools we've been in are new schools built to new CHPS construction standards with Global Green USA's assistance. After some teething pains typical of any new building, these schools have dramatically lower water use – and classroom indoor air quality, lighting and acoustics are all measurably better. Their ORC scores in these areas will provide a good target for older schools in the district to shoot for when they plan to upgrade.
  • Principals, Teachers, and Staff Can Make a Difference. A principal who understands that the conditions in a school building can set a tone and have an impact, and who acts on that understanding, can make a big difference in the school's ORC performance. A teacher who is active about opening windows and blinds and taking time to learn how to operate the systems present in a classroom can make a big difference. And a plant manager who is concerned about waste and water management can make a big difference.
  • Portables are Problematic. Portable or temporary bungalow classrooms are performing far worse that permanent buildings, regardless of how good or bad the conditions are in those permanent building. Sound, lighting, thermal comfort and air quality are all noticeably worse. This may come as no surprise to folks who pay attention to school buildings, but it is helpful to remember that while these buildings are always called a "temporary solution" when installed, generations of children end up being educated in them and school upgrade projects should prioritize getting rid of them.
  • Food Waste is Dramatic. Our waste audits are turning up an unhealthy amount of food waste, whether it be whole uneaten meals, compostable remains, or high volumes of plastic packaging too contaminated to be recycled. This is unhealthy for the kids who are not eating and for the school district  that pays to dispose of recyclables rather than being paid for it. It's also unhealthy for the ecosystem, as methane is being produced in a landfill rather from the food waste, which could instead be putting nutrients back into the soil. Thankfully, one of the schools, inspired by two 4th Grade girls, is taking this challenge head-on by working with a local food bank.
  • Kids Are Interested. In many classrooms we visit, students want to know what we are doing and, more importantly, why we are doing it. When we explain how classroom conditions impact their ability to pay attention, school district finances, and the natural environment, they get it. This is inspiring.
  • Energy Use Varies Widely. So far we are not seeing much correlation between low energy use, energy efficient design, ,and high performance in other areas. This is still preliminary, but its quite possible that schools with low energy use are actually that way because fundamental systems like heating and cooling are not working or because they have more technology in the classrooms that other schools. This finding supports our notion that we need to consider a number of factors when assessing the performance of school buildings, not just energy use.

After uploading all the data into the online ORC assessment tool, we will see how the scores turn out. We're looking forward to seeing if the numbers match our impressions and certainly expect some surprises along way. And then it will be on to the larger task of fixing schools and broadening the use of this integrated assessment tool.