By Suzanne Schmidt
Learning Gate Community School in Lutz is the first public school in the country to achieve the highest green certification a public school can get.
The school earned the platinum certification under the LEED for School rating system through the U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED is the internationally recognized green building certification system.
Drew Smith is the president of Two Trails, a green building consulting firm. He has been helping with the project since the beginning.
“It is a monumental achievement,” Smith said. “We helped with part of the design and through the certification. The school is already environmentally friendly so it is a natural fit for them to get this certification.”
Smith said the LEED program is the most recognized third party green certification in the country. There are multiple levels of LEED certification with platinum as the highest.
Michelle Northrup, spokeswoman for the school, said it took three years from beginning the building process to receiving the certification status.
“I am very excited about us getting platinum status,” Northrup said. “It is exciting to be the only public school in the nation to get it. Our school has always been green. Our motto is nature is our best teacher. I think building green is the future. Our students will be a step above their peers because they already have experience making green choices.”
On the 27-acre campus off Hanna Road, students spend some of their time learning about nature while walking on the woodland trails or toiling away in the organic garden.
“It is such a different environment here,” Northrup said. “The students spend about 20 percent of their day outside. Our children are taught to be independent thinkers. Instead of just being shown it, they are learning it for themselves.”
Students learn other ways to be green as well with the rain barrels, compost bins and recycling bins located throughout the school. Students are responsible for recycling in each classroom.
“The kindergarten class started doing an experiment to see how much waste we had from the lunches,” Northrup said. “They found that we used 9 tall trash bags a day. This year we started a new initiative with the green lunchboxes. Now we save $1,000 a month because we have no trash.”
The school also uses cisterns to collect water for use when flushing the toilets.
“We are the first and only school to use cisterns for the toilets,” Northrup said.
Even the air conditioning at the school is eco-friendly. The school uses a de-humidification system instead of a typical air conditioner.
“The system takes fresh air and removes the humidity,” Smith said. “It controls the temperature of the air and the humidity. It helps the students to stay alert. The green buildings provide a better environment for students. It has been proven students get higher grades.”
Northrup wrote a grant to Lowe’s Charitable Foundation for the money for the green buildings. The final cost of the whole project was $1.3 million.
“I was asking for a quarter of a million grant from Lowe’s Charitable Foundation,” Northrup said. “They felt so strongly about the mission of our school that they gave us the entire amount. They wanted to ensure we had enough to complete the project.”
When deciding which materials and products to buy, Northrup said the school turns it into a lesson for the students.
“The kids had a lot of help with choosing the materials,” Northrup said. “We would let them know what we need and they would do research. They would learn the benefits of each product. It was nice because they got to be a big part of it.”
Patti Girard, founder and principal at the school, said she opened the school with green ideals before they were even known to be green.
“I always wanted the school to have an environmental focus,” Girard said. “I grew up that way. I saw how children react to being outside. It seemed like a natural fit.”
She said she thinks building green will become the norm one day.
“I think it is a necessity to build green,” Girard said. “I think one day it will be something you don’t even think about. It will just be the right thing to do like seatbelts.”
For more information, visit www.learninggate.org.