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Jan 162009

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

Barack Obama has been getting an earful from environmental leaders wanting changes for the nation. Now, thanks to Sidwell Friends School, where his daughters are enrolled, he’ll no doubt be hearing from Malia and Sasha about ways the Obama family can green it up at the White House.

Sidwell, an elite private institution with Quaker roots, has become one of the nation’s most ecologically active schools, offering an education where environmental stewardship is foremost and the buildings are being reborn as models of green construction.

The Sidwell Friends Middle School, renovated in 2006, is the country’s highest rated LEED-honored school, with a platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) designation from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The 33,500-square-foot building was 55 years old when a trustee who’d seen a documentary of architect Bill McDonough’s sustainable designs suggested the green remodeling.

“He insisted that we look at this green building movement. Once this started, the project went to the board and the faculty and eventually became a reality,” says middle school building tour guide Lori Hardenbergh.

The refurbished structure (along with a 39,000 square-foot addition) designed by Philadelphia architects KieranTimberlake, serves 350 students.

According to the USGBC, the school earned the platinum rating by reducing municipal water use by 90 percent; using 60 percent less energy than a conventional school; and planting 80 percent more native plant species on site.

“The kids embrace it [the green initiative],” says Dave Wood, who teaches 8th grade science. “Our strategy is to pick fun and interesting activities and show kids how science is totally relevant and ties into their lives…They need to know how people affect the environment.” All 100 8th graders take the environmental science class. A 25-year-veteran at Sidwell, Wood teaches four of these classes; his wife Margaret Pennock, teaches the other two.

The environment is incorporated into all aspects at Sidwell, from its curriculum and food service to housekeeping and energy consumption. The school not only teaches its students about the environment but thanks to its construction, showcases the importance of green living.

“Eighth grade students get involved by doing tours for all sorts of groups, from student field trips to architects from Canada,” says Hardenbergh, who’s in her fifth year at Sidwell. “Not only do the students learn in the classroom, but they then have an opportunity to share [the green message] with others.”

Part of the philosophy behind a green building is showing how a building works, says Wood. There are different areas on campus where the kids can see exposed pipes and vents. One of the upcoming 8th grade projects will be for the kids to come with signs or maybe a game to explain to visitors how these pipes and vents work.

Environmental stewardship is integral to the Quaker philosophy on which the school was founded. Assistant Head of School Mike Saxenian is pleased with his school’s “green tilt,” telling the USGBC, “The building is a great expression of our core values, a great environment for students to learn and faculty to work.”