Green Sprouts in Detroit Public Schools

Margaret E. Matta, chairwoman of the USGBC's green schools committee.  Photo: Ara Howrani.

Margaret E. Matta, chairwoman of the USGBC’s green schools committee.
Photo: Ara Howrani.

The Detroit Public Schools and the regional chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council are working together to promote environmentalism among students.


Mario, a fourth-grader at Detroit’s Bunche Preparatory Academy and a member of the school’s Green Team, needs only a little prodding before he agrees to perform a song he wrote celebrating environmentalism. He’s nervous, but he’s too excited about recycling, gardening, and conserving energy not to share.

“All I see is green, green, green, no matter what. I’ve got green on my mind, you can never give it up,” he finally raps, a bit breathlessly. “All see is green, green, green, and if you’re going green, put your hands in the air.”

Mario and the other members of the school’s Green Team are pint-sized ambassadors for the planet. Wearing special badges, they patrol the halls of their school, making sure teachers shut the lights off when they’re not using their rooms and reminding them to unplug computers and other appliances before school vacations. They also keep an eye out for water leaks and identify incandescent lights that can be switched out in favor of more efficient bulbs. The program, called the Go Green Challenge, is in its second year, and about half of the district’s schools are participating. Last year, the program saved the district around $400,000 in energy costs.

Meanwhile, the Green Schools Advocacy Committee of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Detroit regional chapter has been raising awareness of environmental issues in schools through its own programs. The chapter sponsors a statewide art contest in which students show—through drawings—ways that their schools are or could be green, has worked to build greenhouses at three Michigan schools, and has developed a website to help teachers incorporate environmental issues into their lessons.

Also, seven Detroit schools that have been built or renovated since 2009 are on track to receive—or have already received—Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Together, the school system and the USGBC Detroit regional chapter have helped spark a green renaissance of sorts in the schools, says Margaret Matta, chairwoman of the regional chapter’s green schools committee. “Green is new [to the Detroit schools], but it’s starting to snowball,” Matta says. “It’s really catching on. A lot of it has to do with the kids. The kids get it. They want to learn more, and they’re pretty excited about things.” The art contest drew 700 entries last year, including one from a girl who convinced her dad to start recycling at his business. “We hold a little luncheon for the winners, and someone said, ‘Well, that’s 700 conversations about why a school should be green,’” Matta says.

Winners of the DPS Go Green poster contest:

The primary goal of the Go Green Challenge isn’t to save the district money, but to boost student achievement, says Emile Lauzzana, director of energy and sustainability for Detroit Public Schools. The district provides learning objectives about sustainability that teachers can fold into their curriculum, and Lauzzana argues that energy-efficient schools make for a good learning environment. “If a student is [sitting] by an exterior wall, and it’s drafty and it’s cold, that student’s not going to be able to concentrate as much,” Lauzzana notes.

At Bunche, five fourth-graders on the Green Team sit around a table in science teacher Diana Koss’s classroom, talking about how much fun they’ve had making salsa with garden-grown vegetables, creating seed necklaces, and collecting and recycling thousands of milk cartons.

Koss’s room is a miniature forest, with aloe, spider plants, and six-inch-tall pine trees growing in pots at each of the room’s tables and around the perimeter. Bird feeders hang outside the windows.

Koss is working with an outside group to bring a butterfly garden to city-owned property adjacent to the school, and she’s hoping to bring single-stream recycling to the school next fall. She currently takes materials from her classroom home to recycle them.

Students at the school were given water-efficient showerheads to take home, as well as timers to help them take shorter showers. The students on the Green Team say they now pester their parents to recycle. When Lauzzana asks them if they’d be willing to care for their own individual tomato plants, they shout a giddy “Yes!” in unison.

“They’re the ones who are going to make a difference in our society,” Koss says. “I’m giving them the tools to be good citizens and take good care of the earth, but the world depends on them.”


Housed in a new $22.2 million LEED Silver Certified building, Earhart Elementary-Middle School is located on Clark Park in the vibrant Mexicantown area of Detroit. Large windows for natural light complement state-of-the-art technology in each room.