Coinciding with county, Madison takes strides toward sustainability

Ellie Renshaw and Bailey Moskowitz

On Jan. 15, 2017, the 13 members of the Fairfax County School Board met to hammer out the details of the Capital Improvement Program, which plans for the county’s facility needs for the next five years. The cycle of introducing, discussing and voting on amendments to the plan was routine; one amendment introduced by Hunter Mill District Representative Pat Hynes was not. The proposal brought the debate over environmental sustainability to the forefront of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) discussion.

The concept of sustainability is difficult to define, in part due to the fact that it only entered the mainstream about 40 years ago. The word is usually used in connection to being “environmentally-friendly” and protecting the earth, but achieving true sustainability involves more. Sustainable living requires that people use resources prudently so future generations will be able to enjoy them. True sustainable development requires a balancing of social and economic responsibilities as well as environmental ones.

“I think that sustainability is a lifestyle of recognizing that your actions are your own, but they have consequences that influence others,” Geosystems teacher Mary Garifo said. “It is living in a way such that life is able to flourish for longer than just your own.”

By the end of the school board meeting, FCPS had a new amendment promising “to continue to take innovative and cost-effective steps to help our country achieve climate stabilization.” The question remained, though, as to what exactly this would mean for Madison.

Madison has never had the “greenest” track record in comparison to neighboring high schools. Data collected by FCPS’s environmental stewardship program, Get2Green, shows that Madison has a higher trash to recycling output than both McLean and Marshall High Schools. In 2017, Madison recycled 15 percent of its total waste, while Marshall recycled 36 percent and McLean recycled 39 percent, the most of any FCPS school.

However, when Madison participated in FCPS’s 2017 Battle of the Buildings, a competition to save energy between schools, Madison placed first as most improved high school and third as most improved school overall. This was in large part due to the advocacy and awareness efforts of the Students for Environmental Action (SEA) Club, a student-run organization at Madison dedicated to environmental sustainability.

Additionally, administration has been taking strides to make the building itself more sustainable. In February 2015, FCPS commissioned the Dallas-based company Cenergistic to coordinate the heating and the lighting around its facilities in order to maximize efficiency.

“Energy Specialists perform building audits at different times and days, checking every energy use point, ensuring that visitors, staff, faculty and students are comfortable during scheduled activities, and that energy is used as needed, never wasted,” Cenergistic Energy Specialist for FCPS ​John Lingenfelter said.

The FCPS contract with Cenergistic will expire in 2019, but the school system hopes to use the techniques learned from Cenergistic to continue the program internally. It is intended that the money saved by Cenergistic’s maximization of energy efficiency will be invested back into the infrastructure of the buildings. So far, FCPS has saved over 10 million dollars with the company.

Schools are unable to make quick updates in infrastructure for the sake of sustainability because of the expenses they would require, but FCPS does encourage substituting in more eco-friendly options when something needs to be replaced. For example, when the Madison softball fields needed new lights, LED lights were brought in rather than the traditional fluorescent fixtures. According to Principal Hood, the main gym is also on its way to upgrading to LED.

Because FCPS schedules school building renovations approximately every 30 years and Madison’s last was finished in 2004, Madison will not undergo a full renovation in the near future. However, due to overpopulation, a plan for a new addition (which will consist of a second floor over the art hall) is underway. Hood hopes that the new addition will include plans for more environmentally-conscious systems, but nothing is finalized yet.

In the meantime, administration is attempting to add the bottle-filling attachment to one of the water fountains per year. The school currently has four fountains with these attachments in order to encourage students to bring their own reusable water bottles instead of drinking out of disposable plastic ones.

Students have been taking matters into their own hands, promoting sustainable lifestyles at home and at school. At the forefront of this student initiative is SEA Club. In the past couple of years, they have held Earth Awareness Week to promote environmental stewardship among the student body, and have executed various environment-related projects, including last year’s recycling initiative in partnership with the Change for Children club. SEA Club also maintains a vertical tower garden within science teacher Daniel Carpenter’s room, the products of which they plan to donate to the gourmet foods classes and the cafeteria. And adhering to Garifo’s philosophy on the role of schools in sustainability, SEA Club runs an Eco-Schools Leadership Initiative, wherein they go to Marshall Road Elementary School to teach students about the environment.

The school should not rely solely on the SEA Club’s efforts, though, Hood said; every student should try to be involved in making Madison a more sustainable school. Additionally, it appears that the majority of Madison students have the desire to do so, as 86.8 percent of Madison students believe it is important for Madison to prioritize sustainability according to a survey of 220 students.

There are many small ways in which students and staff can help out; particularly relevant are turning off and unplugging electronics when not using or charging them. A significant portion of the energy that Madison consumes goes into charging devices due to the school’s eight computer labs and 57 laptop and iPad carts in circulation through the departments. Because of this, energy can be conserved by regularly unplugging chargers while they are not in use; however, only 31.2 percent of Madison students report doing this often.

Other sustainable actions that staff and students can take in school include recycling, bringing reusable water bottles, turning off the lights in classrooms when they are not in use, and participating in environmental clubs. According to the survey, 91.8 percent of Madison students are willing to recycle papers and plastics on a regular basis and 90.9 percent of Madison students are willing to drink from reusable water bottles.

“I think it is important for Madison to prioritize sustainability because if we focus on having sustainable solutions like turning the lights off, using recycled paper, we can contribute to a better community by creating a healthier environment,” Hania Abboud (’18) said.

Although Madison’s budget does not have a separate line item dedicated to sustainability, it does allow for it through use of instructional funds. Teachers, particularly of environmental science and ecosystems, have the freedom to work advances into their curriculum.

“I don’t think [sustainability] takes money,” Garifo said. “We just need to create opportunities for recognizing where sustainability lies.”

Get2Green is another resource to help FCPS students make a difference at school. In addition to collecting energy data on school buildings, the initiative coordinates with schools and teachers and brings gardens and outdoor classrooms to many schools. Offering curriculum support and acting as authentic audiences, Get2Green works to intertwine sustainability and classroom instruction. Donna Volkmann, previously an AP Environmental Science and biology teacher at Madison, now heads the initiative as the Environmental Stewardship Resource teacher.

“If we are teaching you to be good stewards of your environment, then the sustainability piece falls into that,” Volkmann said. “I like to think about it as, you can be an environmental steward, and therefore you’re owning what you’re doing.”

From FCPS’s new amendment, to SEA Club’s innovative efforts, there are countless strides that Madison and its community are taking toward environmental sustainability. If all Madison students and staff make efforts such as these and remain conscious of the consequences of their actions, Madison will not only be on its way toward sustainability, but will also have produced considerate, global-minded citizens.