Healthy & Environmentally Friendly Schools Means Better Learning Outcomes

The California Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CA-CHPS), has put forth building standards to address every aspect of a school, from indoor classrooms to outdoor landscaping, with very specific criteria for integration, indoor air quality, energy, water, site, materials, waste management and operational metrics. Part of the reason for the new criteria is the growing awareness of the impact the indoor environment has on a child’s ability to learn. For example, establishing a minimum level of indoor air quality has been shown to improve student and teacher performance and may reduce the potential for long- and short-term health problems. This version of the CA-CHPS brings together the latest thinking of architects, engineers and state agencies on the best strategies for collaboration. The vision?  Building the next generation: environmentally friendly schools, that increase student help and are energy efficient.

While it’s tricky to try to quantify the relationship between school facility and learning, there are several key areas that do show a measurable impact.


One of the most persuasive studies, “Daylighting in Schools—An Investigation into the Relationship between Daylighting and Human Performance,” funded by the California Public Utilities Commission, looked at school districts in California, Washington and Colorado. The study showed a strong link between an increase in daylighting and increase in performance. According to the CHPS Best Practices Manual, in the California portion of the study, “The students in classrooms with the most daylighting progressed 20% faster on math tests and 26% faster on reading tests as compared to students in classrooms with the least amount of daylight.”


Because the staggering number of sources of indoor pollutants is difficult to control for, no study has conclusively tied differences in indoor air quality to student performance. But frequency of sickness has been conclusively linked to indoor air: Poor indoor air quality in schools can cause recurring illness that requires absence from school, as well as negative health symptoms that can decrease students’ performance while at school. Many reports indicate that deficient ventilation can cause asthma, headaches, fatigue, and nausea—all of which make for a hostile environment for concentration.

Heating & Cooling

As temperature increases beyond the ideal range of 68 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit, students’ ability to achieve deteriorates dramatically. In “Special Report: Rebuilding America’s Schools,” published in Parade magazine, Glen Earthman, Ed.D., a professor emeritus of educational administration at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., says “We know that when the heat gets up to 78, 80 degrees, the learning curve drops precipitously.”


According to Mark Schneider’s paper, “Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes,” several schools consider acoustics their most serious environmental concern. A study that looked at 100 students enrolled in two New York City schools, one of which was in the flight path of an airport, saw a decrease of as much as 20 percent in test scores in the school exposed to airplane noise.

So how can students achieve high-performance goals if the environment itself is substandard? They can’t. A clean, cool, quiet, well-lit classroom can make all the difference to a student’s ability to progress—and a teacher’s ability to teach. Don’t underestimate the impact that retrofitting, upgrading and building efficient, green schools will have on both a building’s—and students’—performance. The right infrastructure can foster a space conducive to learning, promote healthy students, and help close the achievement gap.

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