Virginia Beach’s Sustainable Schools

What do butterflies and the Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) sustainable building initiative have in common? The answer is The Butterfly Effect whereby a small action, e.g. the flutter of butterfly wings, magnifies over time into a huge, long-run effect, e.g. a tornado. 

Over the last decade and beginning with just one school, VBCPS has—despite being located in what researchers in the American Political Science Review have called the third-most conservative city in America—fluttered its wings into recognition as one of the greenest school districts in the country. Moreover, it has garnered 37 sustainability awards since 2008 to prove it. How? According to Tim Cole, the district’s Sustainability Officer, (and both a former architect and NAVY SEAL) it’s just smart business.

At its simplest, the definition of sustainability to which VBCPS subscribes is the “triple bottom line” of “people, planet and profit,” also known as the “three pillars of sustainability.” In VBCPS, this means a sustainably built infrastructure, sustainable practices across the board and public education about sustainability. To accomplish the first, VBCPS committed itself to ensuring that all buildings—both new and modernized—meet the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) criteria defined by the U.S. Green Building Council. 

Of the eight completed site-specific LEED schools, two are platinum level, three are gold, two are silver and one received the basic certification. Primary areas of focus include the capturing and use of rainwater runoff, the maximization of natural daylight usage and reduction of reliance on other sources of energy, indoor air quality (including the type of cleaning solutions used in buildings), recycling, storm water management and more.

college park elementary rain garden

You may be nodding your head at people and planet but raising an eyebrow at profit. The numbers, though, show that LEED certified buildings have not cost more to build in VBCPS, thanks to architects, engineers and VBCPS employees. When compared with construction costs in Region 3 (Del., DC, Md., Va. and W.Va.), all of the completed LEED schools in VBPCS have come in under the regional average, which includes mostly non-LEED schools. Plus, once built, LEED schools are cheaper to operate and result in millions of dollars of cost avoidance.   

kellam high school sustainability virginia beachThrough the implementation of Energy Star and performance contract work for HVAC and lighting in existing buildings, the district has reduced energy use per square foot—and cost—by 21% since 2006. Other metrics suggest that sustainable schools may well improve student and staff health due to improved indoor air quality and may even have a positive effect on test scores, though additional study is needed for a conclusive determination.

The district’s early champions—which include Tony Arnold, Director of Facilities Planning and Construction, and, prior to his retirement, John Kalocay, Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Support Services—supported the creation of a Sustainable Schools Committee with representatives from each administrative department to help implement and monitor sustainable practices across VBCPS in areas as diverse as transportation, custodial and food services. Sustainability education is implemented, in part, through the appointment of Sustainable School Liaisons at all 85 schools, helping ensure that sustainability is integrated into the curriculum in meaningful ways to change values and, as a result, change the culture from one that drains resources to one that gains resources.

Reflecting that his time in the military taught him to “embrace risk, expect change … and lead by example,” Cole credits Arnold and Kalocay not only for possessing these leadership qualities but also for leading with “the self-confidence to provide ‘space’ for creative innovation to take place.” He explains that he sees these kinds of opportunities to “explore and innovate without fear of failure” as being rare in large organizations and is grateful that the new superintendent of VBCPS, Dr. Aaron Spence, is cut from the same leadership cloth.

Invited to sit on national boards, to speak at dozens of conferences across the country and even to serve as guest faculty at elite universities such as Harvard, Cole’s advice to other districts in the cocooning stage of the Butterfly Effect is, “Think big, start small, and act now.”   

Editor's note: Betsy DiJulio is a schoolteacher for VBCPS.

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