‘Net zero’ is big plus for this Virginia elementary school

Christina Barron

THE WASHINGTON POST – At Discovery Elementary in Arlington, Virginia, the building isn’t just a place students learn. It’s something they learn from.

Discovery, which opened in 2015, is what’s called a “net-zero” school. That means it was designed and built to produce as much energy as it uses over the course of a year.

It’s doing that thanks in part to the people inside.

“We didn’t just want to be a ‘green’ building, we wanted to be a ‘green’ school,” Principal Erin Russo said. “I have been so impressed with students. They grab onto (the idea).”

One way the school has gotten kids interested in the school’s “green” focus is the Eco-Action Team. About 75 kids in kindergarten through fifth grade attend monthly meetings not only about saving energy, but about recycling, gardening, healthy living and consuming less.

ABOVE & BELOW: Students explain which bins in the school’s Dining Commons are for which kind of waste; and Maddy Mangi and Maya Umerov-Todoroki give a tour of an area with solar panels at Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

“I like that our school is always helping the environment,” said team member Maya Umerov-Todoroki, a fifth-grader. “It becomes kind of like a hobby.”

Or even a game, added classmate Maddy Mangi, also a member of Eco-Action. “We had a blackout day where we tried to use the least amount of electricity,” she said.

At lunch, the students take recycling to a level not seen in most schools. Between rows of tables in the Dining Commons, there are seven bins for sorting food waste, trash and recycling, including one bin just for squeezable fruit and yogurt.

“It was a little confusing, but then I saw the pictures,” third-grader Harper Spotts said of bin labels, especially helpful for students just learning to read.

The school also donates uneaten food to the Arlington Food Assistance Center and produces some of what is served at lunch. “In our class, we’re growing radishes and lettuce,” said Liam Campbell, a third-grader. The effort is also a science lesson on how plants can grow without soil in what’s called a hydroponic garden.

Even those students not on the Eco-Action Team can’t help but notice that their school environment is all about the environment. The grade levels each have a theme related to the Earth or sky. As kindergartners they are Backyard Adventurers, and they reach Galaxy Voyagers by fifth grade. Related signs are everywhere.