Students and Learning Benefit

by Charles Honey, School News Network

On a frigid, snowy afternoon at Sibley Elementary School, students were bathed in light and perfectly warm as they worked.

In a computer lab/library, natural light flowed through a floor-to-ceiling window onto first-grade teacher Lisa Gillespie as she helped a student. Nearby, other children were silhouetted by the winter whiteness outside as they worked on computers.

Its abundant natural light is one of the reasons Sibley has been named a LEED-certified school by the U.S. Green Building Council. Sibley is one of five Grand Rapids Public Schools earning the designation, which stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, and a prime example of how GRPS and other districts work to cut utility costs and become more energy efficient.

Besides being environmentally progressive, Sibley’s ample use of glass and light also benefits students’ learning, officials say. A national study found improved daylight in school buildings contributes to better test scores and attendance and fewer behavior problems. Leaders at Sibley said they saw record attendance and better kindergarten reading scores after the new building opened in 2007.

Principal Andrew Alvesteffer says he has seen the positive effects sunlight has on students in class. Although teachers sometimes have to draw the blinds in order to see projection screens, he says, the windows keep out the cold and help students stay on task.  

“They seem more attentive,” Alvesteffer said. “When it’s darker, their brains start shutting down. The bright lights kind of keep them more in tune.

“It’s just good to have the natural sunlight in the rooms,” he added, noting the art room is so bright the lights are rarely turned on. “That helps the kids focus. It makes them feel better.”

Constant Vigilance Required

Sibley’s happy marriage of energy efficiency and improved learning is what GRPS officials aim for in their constant quest to control energy costs.

As an unusually warm December gave way to recent plummeting temperatures, facility supervisors kept track daily of energy use in the district’s 60 buildings. From their offices at the GRPS Service Building at 900 Union Ave. NE, they keep an eye on computers that monitor each school’s energy consumption, looking for spikes that might indicate a problem in the heating or lighting systems.  

Their vigilance in getting the most efficiency from their boilers and bulbs has major financial implications. The district last year spent about $2 million on natural gas and $1 million on electricity. That was down slightly from $2.2 million and $1.3 million, respectively, in the 2014 fiscal year.

Equally important is providing an optimal learning environment for students and teachers, officials say.

“Our focus is teaching and learning, and the rest of us are support (for that),” said Kenneth Klomparens, executive director of facilities and operations. “We need to keep that in mind whatever we do.”

Heading up GRPS energy-saving efforts are (from left) Tim Hopkins, Kristen Trovillion and Kenneth KlomparensHeading up GRPS energy-saving efforts are (from left) Tim Hopkins, Kristen Trovillion and Kenneth Klomparens

Klomparens works to manage energy costs with Tim Hopkins, the district’s supervisor of maintenance, and Kristen Trovillion, a Green Schools Fellow with the U.S. Green Building Council. She came to the district on a three-year fellowship to help oversee sustainability and energy management as well as educate students (see sidebar).

Multifaceted Effort

The district’s sustainability program has a strong educational component. It is designed to assure “every student can take something home that they can share or implement at home,” whether it’s recycling or turning in pop cans, Klomparens said.  

As for keeping energy costs down, it’s a multifaceted effort – and a long-term one, he noted: “We’ve been dealing with how to save energy for 20 years.”

The district has done pretty well in those efforts. Besides its five LEED-certified schools, nine have qualified for recognition by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, meaning their energy efficiency is better than the state average.

That was based on an audit of 10 buildings, but the district’s self-monitoring over 30 years has shown its overall energy consumption below the state average, said Hopkins, a 28-year employee.

The district has managed to keep its energy costs relatively stable by a combination of improved technology and sound practices. But it constantly contends with variables including the weather, the cost of gas and electricity, and the unpredictability of human behavior.

It saves on the cost of natural gas and electricity by buying them from an energy management company and a schools cooperative rather than directly from utilities. Other energy-savers include:

  • Installing occupancy-sensor lighting, which automatically shuts off after people leave, in most new buildings and some older ones;
  • Replacing fluorescent lights with more efficient and longer-lasting LED lights when renovations are made;
  • Replacing older boilers with modular systems of smaller units that fire up to meet demand;
  • Programming thermostats to provide more uniform heat levels among classrooms by limiting how much they can be changed.

Many of the technology improvements were funded by a 2004 bond issue, and more are planned under the $175 million bond passed last November. Those will include adding air-conditioning to many buildings to increase student comfort.

The Human Factor

But while technology can save energy, those who occupy buildings can literally throw it out the window. Opening windows to cool a room, rather than reporting that it’s too warm, is an example of how people’s behavior can thwart energy efficiency.

“Occupant behavior is probably the biggest variable in that it’s the least controllable in terms of saving energy,” Trovillion said. “When we don’t have an occupancy sensor, is someone turning out the lights? After you go home for the day, are you turning off your computer?”  

While teachers and other staff are reminded to do those things, she added, “the more you can automate some of those processes or invest in more sophisticated controls, the better.”

As for alternative energy sources, the district has considered solar panels but their high cost is not yet worth the payback, officials say. Although they don’t rule out future investment in them, for now greater energy efficiency provides “more bang for your buck,” Trovillion said.

“We certainly want to explore it,” she added. “We just want to be thoughtful about how we do that.”