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Andrew H. Wilson Charter School Goes Green 

Green schools practice what they teach

click to enlarge Students go through the lunch line at Andrew H. Wilson Charter School. Solar panels heat 90 percent of the hot water used in the kitchen. - PHOTO BY BRANDON MEGINLEY
  • Photo by Brandon Meginley
  • Students go through the lunch line at Andrew H. Wilson Charter School. Solar panels heat 90 percent of the hot water used in the kitchen.

For a moment, it's quiet on the second floor of Andrew H. Wilson Charter School in Broadmoor. Because of the building's acoustics, not even the air conditioner can be heard. Then there's a distant squeak of a rubber sole against bamboo floorboards. And another. A gaggle of first-graders winds around the corner — a blurry flock of khaki and forest green. The students are headed to the courtyard where they will play traditional recess games like hopscotch, dodge ball and four square next to a not-so-traditional 12,000-gallon water cistern.

  The towering vat, which collects rainwater used for landscape irrigation, is just one of the more visible aspects of a school that has officially "gone green." For the last three years, the Recovery School District (RSD) has worked with Global Green USA, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, on new construction and renovations to the original school building. The structure at 3617 Gen. Pershing St. was built in 1928 and was badly damaged by wind and flooding following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. These organizations, along with the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA), fought to bring back the neighborhood school — but with better acoustics, more natural lighting and improved indoor air quality. They also were determined to reduce the amount of electricity and water the school would use. Renovations and construction cost $29 million, and the elementary school officially reopened in January.

  "As someone who has kids in public schools and has watched public schools over the last 20 to 25 years, I think the greening effort is just one more statement of the desire to get it right and get it right the first time," says Lona Edwards Hankins, director of capital improvements for the RSD.

  Andrew H. Wilson is one of the 87 schools Hankins says will "go green" in the next five to seven years as part of a $1.8 billion School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish. Every school will aim to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) requirements for LEED certification, a nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

  "[The] third party certification ... allows us that transparency, that independent audit to say, 'Yes, you are on the right path,'" Hankins says.

  One measure of success is the amount of natural light pouring through the windows, reducing electricity use. Cloudy "light diffusers" — or "works of art," as Principal Sheila Thomas refers to them — help mitigate the heat from what can be oppressive New Orleans sunshine. In the cafeteria, potted bromeliads are green centerpieces on every table. Solar panels heat 90 percent of the water in the kitchen, and solar photovoltaic panels generate some of the building's electricity. Even the toilets are designed to flush with efficiency — just press the appropriate button for No. 1 or No. 2. ("The kids have kind of an interesting giggle with that one," Hankins says.)

  Enter any room at the school and the lights come on; leave, and they go off. Hand-washing basins in the cafeteria are equipped with motion sensors. The building uses one-third less electricity, water and gas than a typical school constructed according to regular building codes, says Beth Galante, director of Global Green USA's New Orleans Resource Center & Office. Global Green USA committed $300,000 and provided expertise and technical assistance to rebuild the school with sustainability and efficiency in mind. She notes as improvements the carpeting made from recycled tires in the music room, the budding edible garden out front, and the large sundial on the facade, but says "the most impressive thing about this school is the things you can't see."

click to enlarge Xylophones sit on carpets made from recycled rubber tires in the music room at Andrew H. Wilson Charter School. - PHOTO BY BRANDON MEGINLEY
  • Photo by Brandon Meginley
  • Xylophones sit on carpets made from recycled rubber tires in the music room at Andrew H. Wilson Charter School.

  The acoustics were designed so students can hear their teachers — and teachers don't need to scream over loud ventilation systems, she says. According to the RSD, the average teacher misses two days of work a year due to vocal strain. Controlled humidity eliminates the possibility of mold and mildew, which is a problem in many schools, especially in New Orleans.

  While initial construction costs can be high, the schools start to pay back immediately, Galante says. Green schools cost less than 2 percent more to build than conventional schools, but they provide savings over time that are 20 times as large, according to "Greening America's Schools: Costs and Benefits," a study by Gregory Kats, managing principal of Capital E, a national clean-energy technology and building firm. That is a savings of about $70 per square foot. Lower energy and water costs, improved teacher retention and lower health costs save green schools about $12 per square foot, or four times the additional cost of going green, according to the study, which reviewed 30 green schools around the country from 2001 to 2006.

  Galante says the environment at green schools also can help increase student performance. Global Green USA found an increase in average daily attendance at green schools and a reduction in overall impact to the environment by reducing operating costs by 20 to 40 percent. Recently, some insurance companies are starting to offer reduced rates for LEED buildings.

  "They have fewer accidents because they're high-quality buildings," Galante says. "Something as simple as a rotten floorboard — you don't have that happening in LEED schools."

  Additional school district partners that contributed to make Wilson a green school include the Clinton Climate Initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Green Building Council and the Salvation Army.

  Andrew H. Wilson is among a handful of LEED-registered schools to reopen in Orleans Parish within the last year. In August 2009, the new Langston Hughes School opened. In January, school officials dedicated the fully restored Joseph A. Craig School in Treme, and a dedication ceremony for Lake Area School on Paris Avenue took place in February.

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