In December of 2017, Griffin Peck joined a team of students trying to get Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for their high school — the School of Environmental Studies (SES) in Apple Valley.
Peck, then a senior, wasn’t sure where the project was headed, but he knew the team had to crunch data and write policy reports.
More than a year later, the experience has influenced Peck’s day-to-day choices — and career — in ways he could not have imagined.
Once someone with basic knowledge of climate change, Peck is now a freshman at Normandale Community College with an eye on conservation biology and environmental policy management. He’s also continuing to mentor SES students coming up behind him.
“I got the kind of experience which lot of kids at my age don’t get,” said Peck.
That experience paid off big time.
In April, the high school achieved coveted LEED gold certification (only platinum status is higher), based on a globally recognized green building rating system. The school is believed to be the first in the world to be certified under LEED 4.1 as an existing building — trickier to accomplish than for buildings certified under new construction.
But the certification was especially noteworthy in that its attainment was driven by high school students. More than 45 students have participated in the process over the past five years, typically working in small groups and networking heavily.
“To get the project going was the easy part,” said Jane Tunseth, a teacher and adviser for the LEED project.
“But to see the project continue year after year, with different batches of students taking charge and finally able to complete the project, was heartening.”
LEED-certified buildings are growing increasingly desirable for both lowering operating costs for energy and water, and improving indoor air quality. The SES effort started in 2014 when student Leah Havlicek explored whether she could get LEED certification as part of her capstone project.
The following fall, Tunseth was teaching a leadership class. Students, with Tunseth’s support, decided to build on Havlicek’s vision and tackle the LEED project.
“They wanted to evaluate our energy usage and gain certification to demonstrate our commitment to being an environmental school,” said Tunseth.
Right away, students got connected to the U.S. Green Building Council, which introduced them to green building professionals. Those professionals conducted workshops and helped the students collect data and conduct energy audits.
Still, not everyone was on board from the beginning.
“To keep the communication going was the most difficult part,” said Anna Amodeo, the LEED project manager. “While many of the professionals were cooperative, some didn’t take us seriously because we are students,” she said.
“They said we didn’t know what we were doing. We said that was exactly why we wanted your help,” Amodeo said with a laugh.
Originally, the idea was to get LEED 4.0 certification. But Stephanie Leonard, a green building council staff member who guided the students through the process, said that designation requires permissions from the district and could become “a stalling point for us.”
Leonard said this was the first time she had worked with high school students.
Minnesota is home to 16 LEED-certified schools; Ohio leads the pack with 350 green schools. Out of more than 1,800 LEED-certified schools across the United States, only 30 have earned the certification under the existing buildings ratings system.
SES, a magnet school built in 1995, didn’t have to undergo major alterations to get the certificate.
Still, Amodeo and her team spent several hours testing indoor air quality of all the classrooms, then simplified the data, put it on spreadsheets, submitted it in a database and wrote a policy paper.
“We had to learn everything they [professionals] do for a living,” said Amodeo, who left May 14 for an environmental and cultural study in South Africa.
By 2018, the students shifted to LEED 4.1 certification, which was more efficient and streamlined. The new focus, Leonard said, was on the individual building and the human impact on that building.
“I have been amazed at the things these students have tackled, one at a time, from dealing with waste to working with building maintenance, measuring toxins, testing air quality and coordinating with the District 196 purchasing office regarding supply chain compliance,” said Amodeo’s mother, Mary Ellen Amodeo.
Melissa Rappaport Schifman, who worked as a community adviser for the students, agreed.
“This was not an easy process,” said Schifman, a sustainability consultant with a master’s degree in business from the University of Chicago.
“It is not easy to get data.” It can be even more difficult to implement policy changes, she said.
“I can easily tell private clients to make changes in the purchase or cleaning or waste policy and they would do it,” Schifman said. “It is harder in a school where you have different levels of authority.”
On April 9, the SES team — represented by Peck, Amodeo, Schifman and Tunseth — attended the Green Schools Conference and Expo in St. Paul, where they discussed the certification process, challenges, benefits and next steps.
Inspired by their work with SES and other community-based student organizations, the green building council rolled out a Green Students Mentoring Program earlier in May.
“The program will help more students green their learning spaces and will feature curriculum written using SES and other schools across the U.S. as examples,” noted a council news release.
“Schools will work with their mentors and other industry experts to create a whole-school sustainability plan with attainable goals. Students will complete green projects that accelerate their progress toward those goals in whole-school sustainability and environmental education.”
Students and teachers involved in the LEED project feel proud, but certainly not finished. They are now vying for the platinum certification, the highest possible.
“What we have right now will work as a baseline or benchmark for future goals,” said Peck, who wants to continue to mentor SES students. He also wants to set up composting at his former high school and maximize the use of renewable energy.
“This is not a one-time certification,” Peck said, noting that it must be renewed every three years.
“We have to track our data and show that we are abiding by the standards,” he said. “We have to continuously earn it.”