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Schools Embrace Environment and Sow Debate

By Winnie Hu (The New York Times) - January 25, 2007

SCARSDALE, N.Y. — Every weekday at 2:30 p.m., a line of luxury sedans and sport utility vehicles idles outside Scarsdale Middle School in Westchester County. Exhaust fumes pollute the atmosphere, even though posted signs decree this a “No Idling Zone” and students berate their parents for violating it.

“I normally do abide by it,” said Loryn Kass, 41, as she hastily turned off her BMW sedan while waiting for her daughter on a recent afternoon. “I totally support it to keep the air clean and fresh for our children.”

The school pickup line has become the latest front in a growing school-based environmental movement that has moved far beyond recycling programs and Earth Day celebrations to challenge long-accepted school norms.

Since 2004, dozens of public and private schools in Westchester and New York City and on Long Island have adopted no-idling zones, switched to plant-based cleaners in their buildings and, to a lesser extent, banned pesticides from playgrounds and playing fields, according to Grassroots Environmental Education, a nonprofit group that began a campaign this month promoting all three measures.

Similar efforts have spread across the country. The Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, a nonprofit group, has recognized 163 Maryland Green Schools — nearly one-third of them in the last two years — for taking initiatives like preserving wetlands, banning disposable plastic water bottles or assigning environmentally themed readings.

No effort is deemed too small. In a light-bulb exchange in Southern California, students in 26 schools in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties replaced 15,734 incandescent bulbs — and counting — in their homes with energy-efficient compact fluorescent versions. Officials and educators in California are planning the first Green California Schools Summit in Pasadena in December, expected to draw more than 2,000 school board members, administrators and teachers.

Some educators contend that the environmental focus is a waste of taxpayers’ money and a distraction for schools at a time when many students are ill-prepared for college and struggling to meet minimum standards on math and reading tests.

“Students need very basic skills, and those are so much more important than getting an emotional high because they’ve done something supposedly for the environment,” said Jane S. Shaw, executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a public policy organization in Raleigh, N.C. She is a co-author of “Facts, Not Fear,” a 1996 book that argued that textbooks exaggerated environmental problems.

Jerry Cantrell, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association and a former president of the school board in Randolph, called the environmental programs an unnecessary expense, particularly for public schools facing budget cutbacks.

“The ‘ed biz’ is known for faddish endeavors,” he said. “They pick up on some new philosophy, and it seems cool and popular, and I would throw being green in with that.” But school officials counter that they have a responsibility to help students become better citizens, and that in that sense teaching them to protect the environment is no different from teaching them ethics or social norms.

“Students need to learn to give back,” said Nicholas Dyno, principal of Southampton High School, on Long Island, where graduating seniors sign a pledge saying that they will consider the environmental consequences of their future actions. Last month, at the urging of students, the school switched to a paperless attendance system that Mr. Dyno said saves 800 sheets of paper a day.

Many parents and local officials also support environmental measures at schools because of growing concerns over health risks from exhaust fumes and toxic chemicals. Last week, New York City Council members, citing asthma cases among elementary school children, proposed legislation to prohibit people from idling their vehicles more than one minute next to schools.

The green schools movement, which grew out of earlier efforts at colleges and universities, has already changed the way some schools are built. Today, an increasing number of classrooms have ventilation systems, natural lighting and automatic light and heat sensors.

The U.S. Green Building Council, which sets standards for environmentally friendly construction, has certified 60 green schools, including a new building at Sidwell Friends School in Washington that is constructed partly from recycled wine barrels. More than 400 other schools have applied for certification, and last month that number rose by one school a day.

While environmentalism does not come cheap, many school officials and parents say that building green schools or adopting recycling programs not only benefits the environment, but can also be good for the bottom line.

The largest suburban school district in New Jersey, Toms River, has spent $20 million in the past two years to install solar panels at seven schools, and plans to retrofit 11 more schools by 2012. District officials said their annual electricity bill of $3 million dropped by $239,000 in the first year alone.

Increasingly, schools have also sought to integrate environmentalism into their curriculums — the Ethel Walker School in the Hartford suburbs features a course called Literature of the American Environment — so it becomes a way of seeing and thinking about the world.

Dale Jamieson, director of environmental studies at New York University, said the green impulse in schools and in the population at large had taken on the same urgency that the civil rights movement did for an earlier generation.

“It’s a place where morality and personal life and behavior and social change all come together,” he said. “There’s this feeling it’s an important issue in everyday life.”

But Mr. Jamieson said that school initiatives intended to modify individual behavior, like no-idling zones and recycling programs, made little difference in solving complex environmental problems deeply rooted in society. He said that real change could be achieved only by, say, reducing human consumption and restructuring the world’s energy system.

“It’s like if you go to McDonald’s and order a hamburger and then recycle the packaging, that’s the most trivial thing you can do,” he said. “Because most of the environmental impact is in the meat production.”

Here in Scarsdale, the 4,700-student school district embarked on an environmental mission last year after the superintendent, Michael V. McGill, and parents here saw former Vice President Al Gore’s cautionary tale about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Shortly afterward, the district hired its first “sustainability education coordinator” to oversee green initiatives. It also added $140,000 the first year for “sustainability projects” to its $124.9 million budget.

“We have the luxury of getting involved in things like this,” said Steven Frantz, the sustainability education coordinator. “Our kids do so well that we’re not worried about the next test score, but that also comes with more responsibility.”

The Scarsdale district has rolled out an ambitious environmental agenda that includes a $7.5 million plan, set to be approved this month, to make buildings more energy efficient. It also has a rebate program in which individual schools will get back 75 percent of their savings from the district if they lower their energy costs from the year before.

At Scarsdale Middle School, students organized a No Idle Week last May, during which they handed out brochures and bumper stickers.

They have planted an organic garden, and collected cellphones and printer cartridges for recycling. The school even produced a music video, “10 Percent for the Future,” challenging people to reduce environmental waste by changing their personal habits.

Some of their efforts may be paying off. At least two families at the school have traded in their S.U.V.’s for hybrid vehicles.

“The kids are the ones, especially at this age, to latch on to things, and they get on to their parents,” said the principal, Michael McDermott. “It’s the subversive way to change adult behavior.”

Assuming, of course, that the parents are willing to change. While no one has complained directly to school officials, cars continue to idle outside the middle school and elsewhere around town.

Ellen Corrini, 13, said she scolded her mother a few weeks ago for leaving the car running:

“I said, ‘You should turn off the car; you’re not even in it.’”