First Person

PS 276 Leads The Way In Green School Design

PS 276, also known as the Battery Park City School, opened in 2009 to alleviate overcrowding in its Lower Manhattan neighborhood and serves children in prekindergarten through eighth grade. It is also the first public school in New York City specifically designed and built to be a green school.

Entering PS 276

The discreet glass solar panels that extend over the entrance of the building, which will soon be collecting solar energy for the school, are the first indication that this public school is in a league of its own when it comes to sustainable education. Immediately confirming this impression is the high-tech video monitor in the lobby, which will receive data from the school’s solar panels and other energy sources to show students how much energy the school is generating and how much it’s consuming. To help students better understand the amount of energy the school is saving, the figure will be illustrated by showing its equivalent in planted trees or removed-from-the-road cars.

Video monitoring energy savings

The school, which was designed by Dattner Architects and built under the New York City School Construction Authority’s Green Schools Guide, is reported to have cost $80 million. Of that, $37 million came from the Battery Park City Authority, which paid for all the “green” details of the school such as the solar panels, sustainable building materials, and low-flow plumbing fixtures. The school’s “roof-mounted photovoltaic cells alone generate 50 kilowatts of energy, roughly one-third of the energy needed to light the school,” according to Dattner Architects’ website. The firm estimates that the school’s high-efficiency boilers, extra insulation, and photovoltaic solar panels will reduce the school’s energy costs by 25 percent.

One reigning feature of green architecture is lots of windows to reduce the need for overhead lighting, and PS 276 has no shortage of those in its classrooms with views overlooking the Hudson River. To further ensure the least amount of overhead light is used, light sensors in each classroom respond to the amount of daylight coming in and automatically dim should the sun suddenly peak out from a patch of clouds. The light sensors also respond to motion: If the sensors detect no motion in the classroom, the lights will automatically turn off. Principal Terri Ruyter admits this can be a problem when students are quietly working at their desks.

PS 276's science lab

Principal Ruyter tries to cultivate a green school culture that goes beyond the physical building. The school has a full-time science teacher committed to cultivating an appreciation of the natural world in the younger students while teaching environmental science to the older ones. The school has raised garden beds lining the perimeter of its outdoor science roof for gardening and an extensive recycling program in its cafeteria and classrooms: Students are expected to recycle not just paper, but milk cartons, aluminum foil, juice cartons, even toilet paper rolls. Students are also encouraged to take the stairs instead of the elevators when needing to go to the second, third, or fourth floors.

Recycling center at PS 276

Obviously, most city schools don’t have millions of dollars to invest in photovoltaic cells and other green technology to reduce their energy consumption. But much of what PS 276 is doing to be more sustainable can easily be imitated at other schools at little to no cost. Here are just a few lessons I jotted down while touring the school:

  1. Replace regular light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones and do it as a fundraiser for your school.
  2. Turn off lights when a classroom is not in use.
  3. Make sure your custodian lowers the school’s thermostats at night.
  4. Create a fun and colorful bulletin board in the cafeteria and in classrooms to make sure students, teachers, and staff are recycling.
  5. Get a farmbox and start planting some vegetables and herbs.
  6. Create a “Green Team” at your school comprised of your principal, teachers, parents and students to find other ways to make your school more sustainable.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.

First Person

I was a winner in an academically segregated school. Now, I’m driven to advocate for the other side

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star

You notice many things walking the halls of your middle school: Some kids are bigger than you, some are a different gender, some have a different hair color.

At my middle school, it was as easy to notice some kids were not getting the same education as me.

I attended Hamilton Middle School in Denver for three years as a young teenager, and I was in what was known as the IPM Program, or the International Preparatory Magnet program. Essentially, it was the program for kids who were going to succeed.

But naturally, when some children are selected to succeed, others aren’t. At my school, they were the “TAP kids,” or the students in the Traditional Academic Program.

We were divided neatly, I’d even say segregated, along these program lines to the point where we had different classes on different floors. It did not take a patient observer to realize the main floor, where many eighth-grade TAP classes were held, was less resourced than the upper floor, where I had my classes.

When I compared notes years later with a friend in TAP, we realized how much more writing I did in my classes. One example: An outside program once gave every student at the school a box of energy-efficient lightbulbs and shower heads — but only the IPM kids were required to write essays about how to use them to save energy.

From grading standards to locker quality to college encouragement, IPM was clearly the part of the school the Hamilton faculty was paying attention to.

In the years since I attended, Hamilton has changed its programs. George Washington High School, where the International Baccalaureate program has been a popular destination for Hamilton’s IPM students, has opened itself up more, too.

Still, I wonder what happened to my TAP peers, many of whom were my friends, and most of whom came from poorer families.

It’s hard for me to imagine that, after being tracked into the TAP program, most of those students ended up prepared to graduate from college. I wonder how that contributes to the state’s high school graduation rate — one of the lowest in the country.

Now, as a grown man and voting citizen of the great state of Colorado, I’m asking, what can I do for those kids who have fewer resources and for years endure schools that don’t care about them?

For one, I have an electoral fellowship this summer to help lobby for better education policies and support local school board candidates. I have also been working to oppose cuts to federal student aid and rollbacks of civil rights protections for transgender students being proposed or implemented by Betsy DeVos, our U.S. Secretary of Education.

But while those federal issues really matter, it’s the local issues that first inspired me.

We need to look carefully at schools separating their students as fully as my middle school did, and encourage leaders to push for an equitable, challenging education for all, instead of being selective and pushing some students to the wayside.

Marcos Descalzi is a third-year student at the University of Denver studying public policy and a Colorado SFER Action Network summer fellow.