Red Hawk featured in Colorado Parent Magazine

The Little Green Schoolhouse


 The Little Green SchoolhouseSavvy Colorado schools are greening up to save resources.

Published: 10/27/2015

by Jamie Siebrase

The days of teeny one-room red schoolhouses are long gone. Hundreds of thousands of people are moving to the Centennial State annually, and that means modern schools are crowded, operations costs have skyrocketed and environmental impact increased. Some schools are turning green as a result.

“The green building movement is strong here in Colorado,” says Patti Mason, executive director of the Colorado division of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Here are three core practices that make a school green and some tips and tricks from schools adopting these practices.



“In most Colorado school districts, utility costs are second only to teacher salaries,” Mason says. “And energy costs are one of the few expenses that can be decreased without negatively affecting classroom instruction.”

Mason’s organization promotes sustainability in construction and design, and its national chapter might be best known for developing the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building rating system. Similar to an organic food label, LEED means different things based on context. Generally speaking, though, the certification recognizes bestin-class building strategies. While there are different levels of certification, all LEED buildings share some commonalities: they positively impact student health while promoting renewable, clean energy.

In 2011, Vista Peak PK-8 opened as the first LEED designated building in Aurora Public Schools (APS). The price tag was hefty, but, says Mason, “especially in an educational context, conservation investments make sense because schools hold onto their buildings.” Savings are felt short-term, too: Operational costs plummet when buildings are efficient. The USGBC estimates Vista Peak’s building uses 44 percent less energy and 40 percent less water than a typical structure of its size.

According to APS’s Director of Construction Management, Amy Spatz, Vista Peak was the district’s first building with a geothermal heat pump, a central heating and cooling system that transfers heat to and from the ground via underground wells. Marking another energy-efficient first, Spatz’s team ditched pink batt insulation for spray insulation, which “creates a better barrier,” Spatz says.

Water reduction was less revolutionary but equally important. The City of Aurora had strict requirements long before LEED certification was celebrated; as such, low-flush toilets and faucets with automatic shut offs were already standard in APS schools. “On the outside of our building, a big water saver was xeriscaping,” Spatz adds.

During construction, Vista Peak’s project team recycled more than 76 percent of its construction waste by sorting materials into giant recycling dumpsters. “It’s like a bigger version of the recycling you’d do at home,” says Spatz. Plumbers, for example, segregated their scraps from copper piping. Because most building materials come to a site in cardboard boxes, there was a bin reserved solely for cardboard. “Contractors will say it costs more for a job if they have to separate waste," says Spatz. "But, we found that it didn’t add an additional cost.”

“Sometimes it’s the really small steps that make a huge difference—like turning off lights when they aren’t being used,” says Colorado Department of Education grant specialist Anna Young.

At Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, Principal Cyrus Weinberger drastically reduced campus waste by placing compost receptacles in the cafeteria and in classrooms. His building—a 2015 Green Ribbon School—is Gold LEED certified, but it’s the on-site composting program children notice most and are most eager to practice at home.



Energy-saving strategies don’t just save money—they enhance the learning environment, too. Poudre School District’s Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School was “designed to be a living-teaching building, where kids are involved in measuring out the waste they produce in lunches and calculating how much energy their building uses up,” says Young.

At the Denver Green School, students have conducted energy audits of their school lighting system for class credit. Three Douglas County schools — Sedalia Elementary, the Renaissance Expeditionary Learning Magnet School and Pioneer Elementary — have sustainability specialty courses that augment elective offerings like art and P.E.

“The goal of Pioneer’s Sustainability Special is to give students the opportunity to work collaboratively to develop creative solutions to real world problems,” explains Pioneer’s principal, Kelli Bainbridge. Activities have ranged from sorting through classroom trash for recyclables to raising chickens from eggs through the school’s new poultry program.

Many Douglas Country School District (DCSD) schools emphasize gardening, according to LeeAnn Westfall, DCSD’s sustainability manager. Forty-two have active school gardens, and they function as living laboratories. First graders experience insects, soil and plants tactilely, before writing reports; upper grades do soil testing and they help with garden planning. “They also learn about funding and the financial challenges of developing a garden,” adds Westfall.

Last year, Red Hawk Elementary purchased an aeroponic tower to give its students a worm’s-eyeview of roots. In the spring of 2011, Denver Green School was the first in Colorado to have an on-site farm-to-cafeteria program when Sprout City Farms, in partnership with Denver Urban Gardens, established a one-acre farm on the school grounds.



A green school focuses on the health of its students. And, Red Hawk’s health and wellness program is so exceptional that Weinberger was asked to present on it at last year’s USGBC Summit. Through a series of planning meetings held a year before Red Hawk’s grand opening, Weinberger had learned his community wanted their public school to couple rigorous academics with health and safety. “That’s how Well Way came around,” he says about his acclaimed all-school movement program.

“Research supports a correlation between fitness level and academic success,” Weinberger says. To that end, students have at least 30 to 45 minutes of daily movement on top of their regular recesses and PE classes. Red Hawk has its own designated trail run, and on Fridays, the entire school body gathers so children can lead high-energy aerobics for teachers and parents.

Maybe that’s why Kaiser Permanente has awarded Red Hawk $150,000 in grant money to use for training 75 teachers within the St. Vrain Valley School District. The district was also given a $1.4 million dollar grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to bring running clubs into all 26 of its elementary schools.

As far as APS’s administration is concerned, being green means looking at not just food, but food security, too. Instead of absentmindedly trashing grub, some inspiring adolescents and teens at the Aurora West College Preparatory Academy are looking at alternatives for their leftovers.

Members of the school’s environmental club researched food insecurity, started a petition that went all the way to their superintendent. Their efforts ultimately launched a program called the Food Recovery Initiative, which employs the awardwinning, local We Don’t Waste organization to pick up uneaten breakfast food and distribute it to nearby charities and food banks.

Being green might not have been easy for Kermit, but these schools have it down pat.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer and mother.