July/August 2022

District 99 Strategizes for a Greener Future

By Kristen Kucharski

Community High SD 99 in Downers Grove has committed to ensuring energy conservation and environmental awareness, important both to the future of students and for fiscal responsibility to the district’s taxpayers. 

The district’s efforts earned it recognition as a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School in 2022. Across the country, 27 schools, five districts, and four postsecondary institutions were so honored for environmental efforts. The aim of the Green Ribbon Schools Award is to 

  • Reduce environmental impact and costs;
  • Improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and
  • Provide effective environmental and sustainability education.

“To receive recognition at a national level is a testament to the quality of our people and programs,” said Hank Thiele, Superintendent of District 99. “What’s unique about this award is that in addition to considering what we’ve practiced for years, energy conservation and education, we’re being recognized for our activities that promote social sustainability, which relates to how we work to improve the health and wellness of our students and staff.” 

Community High SD 99 educates about 5,000 students in two high schools. To reduce environmental impact and costs, improve student and staff health, and provide effective environmental and sustainability education in daily operations, the district’s efforts are many and recently include

  • Replacing outdated and inefficient heating and cooling systems to reduce overall energy costs with a commitment to use only energy service companies for all HVAC improvement projects;
  • Switching from T12 fluorescent light bulbs/ballasts to T8 light bulbs in classrooms and offices;
  • Installing LED lighting in small and large gymnasiums;
  • Installing covers on swimming pools at the district’s two high schools, reducing heating costs by 28% and the pool’s annual water consumption by 38%.

For all new construction and/or renovation projects, the district considers LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines during design and construction to ensure energy and water efficiency on all future projects to reduce operational costs. Some examples are installing light, faucet, and toilet sensors throughout the buildings, as well as adding water refilling stations. The district has tanks that receive rainwater from district fields to supply water for the irrigation system. New outdoor seating areas and patios were created to extend the classrooms to a natural environment. An additional drop-off circle was constructed to reduce idling time. 

Over the years, District 99 has enacted fundamental changes to environments to better align buildings to conservation efforts. Highlights of these initiatives include establishing quarterly Energy Committee Meetings with a core group to bring together information from employees and students; working with Nania Energy to purchase renewable energy and power 100% of electricity usage via Green-E Energy Certified National Wind RECs; installing solar panels funded via a grant from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) for science students. District 99 purchases 100% of its bulk purchase copy paper from recycled sources and deepens recycling efforts by educating students to recycle cafeteria waste into appropriate receptacles while developing a food share program for unwanted whole foods. 

Improving the health and wellness of students and staff is of utmost importance. This prompts annual, three-year, and six-month inspection agreements with Gallagher Bassett Technical Services to complete regular testing at all district buildings to deliver a consistent message to occupants concerning the superior air quality. The data can also identify energy savings where temperatures or fresh air are outside of IAQ and energy parameters. They conduct an indoor air quality study including temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide.

Daily building operations continuously promote clean air and clean surfaces and use “green,” environmentally-friendly cleaning supplies including those on the EPA-N list to combat the coronavirus and beyond.

Eating clean encourages a healthy body with proper nutrition now available in a newly renovated servery lines that include a wide variety of customizable and premade options throughout all nutritional categories while having allergen-aware options readily available.

Coordinated efforts for a healthy mind and body have also been included in recent building renovations to make access to counseling and social services easily assessable during lunch periods and study halls. Wellness and Mental Health Resources are widely available and the district schedules events to foster better health, green ideals, and scholarship. Live plants were also installed inside the buildings to improve focus, lessen symptoms of anxiety, and boost the moods of staff and students. 

District 99 students participate in several clubs related to environmental sustainability. Environmental Science courses have field trips as part of their required curriculum, such as to a water treatment plant, a landfill, a business such as “The Plant” in Chicago that is a sustainable business, and an energy generating facility. The Women in STEM club printed out posters to hang in every room and in the common areas above the recycle bins, showing which items go in which bin. 

Beyond facilities and curriculum, Community High School District 99 has partnered with the community to participate in Earth Chats Podcast with SCARCE, Adopt a Highway, and Illinois Science and Technology Coalition of Chicago to provide a research challenge for students; CEMAST as well as ComEd to help develop innovative ideas for use of solar, wind, and additional technologies to move toward a greener method of energy production; and the Morton Arboretum to access their 300 test beds that are planted in a homogeneous and heterogeneous state. The district is restoring community land to native prairie for environmental and recreational benefits inclusive of student access to a natural laboratory. Many more extracurricular activities are available for students involved in preservation of the environment and developing awareness of the harmful effects our actions can have on the environment. 

Green Ribbon School Community High School District 99 is committed to sustainability and strategizes to continue its pursuit for a greener globe to protect the environment and welfare of future generations.

Kristen Kucharski is Assistant to the Director of Physical Plant and Facility Rental Manager at Community High SD 99 in Downers Grove.