Green School Leads and Teaches by Example
If there is a public building in Pennsylvania that wants to call itself the “Greenest” in the state, it will have to work hard to beat Green Valley Elementary school in Sinking Spring. The K-5 school a little over an hour to the northwest of Philadelphia uses the structure itself as a teaching tool. Thanks to the leadership of Principal Dr. Dina Wert, the entire school day is operated through the prism of leaving the smallest footprint possible. “Every day is Earth Day here,” she says enthusiastically.
Built in 2005 for a cost of $13.5 million, the centerpiece of the school’s environmental mission is its geothermal heating system. Designed and built by a team that included regional companies such as Consolidated Engineers and Morrison Geothermal, Green Valley looks like any other school to the naked eye. But a closer look reveals no unsightly cooling towers, unwieldy outdoor generators, or any other machinery that could be dangerous, not a minor consideration on a building that houses hundreds of children. The “closed loop” geothermal system required the drilling of 160 holes to a level of 450 feet below ground. Usually a depth of 250 feet is sufficient, but the 89,000 square foot building demanded the drilling go a little deeper.
There were many factors that contributed to the choice to use geothermal energy. The decision was equal parts financial and environmental says Wert. “Our energy bills are at least 25% less than other schools our size and we’re 30% more efficient.” Those are the type of savings that taxpayers can appreciate.
Working in tandem with the geothermal system is a 60,000 gallon tank located below the school playground. The tank holds harvested rainwater which is then used to meet the school’s plumbing needs. But the building goes even further in its pursuit of efficiency. Green Valley was built at an angle in relation to the sun so that in the summer months the exposure to classrooms is limited, keeping down energy costs. Conversely, in the winter months, exposure to the sun is maximized, keeping the classrooms warm and energy costs low.
What puts Green Valley at the top of the heap among green schools is the culture fostered by Dr. Wert. The entire Green Valley community—not just students, but their parents and teachers—have bought into the idea that not only is green good, it’s the wave of the future. “My generation recycled and separated papers and plastics, but we have to teach our kids to go beyond that”, Wert says. “This building is a perfect example of that.”
This past school year saw students take part in initiatives to eliminate plastic bottle usage, save water while brushing their teeth, and handing in their used sneakers for recycling. Wert would like to add composting to the list next year. For summer reading, she’s asked parents not to read Young Adult classics like A Separate Peace or The Giver to their children. Instead Wert suggests Last Child in the Woods by Robert Louv, a treatise on the importance of the outdoors in a child’s education.
Dr. Wert and her staff at Green Valley have set a pretty high bar for other schools to aim for, but we will all benefit in their trying.