September 13, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 10:05 pm

Hartford Opens State's First Gold LEED School | Students Learning From Their Environment With Butterflies Among The Teachers

What better place to learn about the environment than a school building dedicated to energy savings, ecological study and green initiatives?

Hartford Public Schools built the first LEED gold certified school in Connecticut for the innovative Mary M. Hooker Environmental Studies Magnet School that opened Aug. 30. The $41-million facility taps into national trends of using ecology to teach basic elementary curriculum, putting students in eco-friendly buildings and creating environments conducive to learning.

The K-8 facility is a place where fish, butterflies and energy savings teach math, science and social studies.

"It makes sense to put that kind of curriculum in a LEED building like that," said Charles Rothenberger, staff attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. "Hopefully, this will be a trend with any new school."

The Hooker elementary school first opened on Sherbrooke Avenue in Hartford in 1952, named after the first female state representative in Connecticut and descendent of Hartford founder Thomas Hooker. Although the school switched to an environmental curriculum several years ago, this is its first year as one of 12 Hartford magnet schools, meant to draw students in for its alternative learning methods.

The reconstruction of the facility toward the LEED green building certification program started in April 2009 and included 70,000 sq. ft. in renovations and a 30,000 sq. ft. addition. The innovative construction needed to achieve the gold certification required Bloomfield general contractor PDS Engineering & Construction, Inc. to grasp new techniques as the facility was stripped down and built up from its basic structure.

"It was a big learning curve for us, but we grabbed it and ran," said Joe Lucia, PDS project superintendent.

Among the many features are a 60-kilowatt co-generation system to power and heat the building; sensors to adjust lighting intensity based upon the level of natural light; a heating and cooling system set at a constant 74 degrees that can adjust to various temperatures in different areas of the building; a white roof to reflect heat; and waterless urinals. All of the building's components were made within 500 miles, and 98 percent of the materials demolished during the reconstruction were recycled.

Among the many features added for the curriculum is a ecosystem in the lobby of the school where students can learn about fish, plants and water, all from Connecticut; an aquatics lab to study marine life from various Connecticut water bodies; a vivarium with live butterflies and plants; a greenhouse where students will grow plants for the ecosystem, the vivarium and the cafeteria; and a 3-D interactive science theater.

Through the course of using these amenities for experiments and demonstration, students learn the basic elementary curriculum through — for example — doing math to take measurements of fish, social studies on the impact humans have on the natural environment, and nutritional components of food grown in the greenhouse.

"It is all-in-one learning," said Richard Montanez, Hooker school principal.

The school also includes a mock apartment where students can learn about sustainable living; an outdoor classroom; and 12 acres of natural land with trails and learning stations. PDS donated $12,000 in work to upgrade and trails and fences in that outdoor learning environment.

Centering elementary curriculum on environmental studies, especially sustainability and renewable energy, is a growing trend among magnet schools, said Anna Hinton, director of parental options and information for the U.S. Department of Education. East Hartford and New Haven each have magnet schools dedicated to environmental studies.

The difference with the Hooker school is the LEED Gold certification. It puts environmental sustainability at the forefront of students' learning. A monitor gives students readouts of the facility's energy performance and water usage. The co-generation system and efficient appliances allow students to see real-world examples of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

"The learning becomes extraordinarily relevant for the students," said Alex Nardone, chief operating officer for Hartford Public Schools.

While a school gold certified by the U.S. Green Building Council is new to Connecticut, green construction is an emerging market, Rothenberger said. Five years ago, 2 percent of new construction was classified as green; this year it's 35 percent.

"People are realizing the long-term benefits of these buildings far outweigh the incremental costs," Rothenberger said.

Green buildings offer more than just financial savings through better use of energy. They tend to be more open and climate controlled to create better living environments. Nowhere else is this intangible benefit more important than schools, Rothenberger said, adding students learn better than they did in the cinder-block, jail-like facilities of old.

The Hooker school features an abundance of windows to let in natural light, more than 2,500 plants, open ceilings and light, bright colorings.

In its inaugural year under the gold certification, Hooker is open to 300 students. As the plants grow and PDS puts the finishing touches on its work, the school will open to its full capacity of 660 students next year.

"You've got the best school in the state of Connecticut, and I think it is going to be the best in the country," Montanez said.

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