Virginia Beach City Public Schools goes to the head of the class, integrating sustainability into their buildings as well as classroom teachings.

WRITTEN BY Calvin Hennick | PHOTOGRAPHED BY Ara Howrani

Last January, at a wooded site 10 miles from the ocean, the Virginia Beach City Public Schools unveiled their latest high-tech teaching tool. Officials hope that it will promote collaborative and interactive learning, particularly around sustainability issues, and they’ve invested considerable resources in the device. It took two years to assemble, takes up more space than an aircraft carrier, and came with a price tag of $102 million.

It’s called a school building.


Floyd E. Kellam High School is the district’s eighth Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified building, with a ninth under construction. The buildings are a mix of basic LEED certification, Silver, Gold, and Platinum (Kellam is still being certified, and is likely to come in at either Silver or Gold), but school officials are focused on more than just getting plaques that they can hang at the buildings’ entrances. They want to infuse the district’s teaching and learning with lessons about sustainability—and that means using the buildings themselves to educate students and community members about the impact of the built environment.


“I think our approach to sustainability is more holistic than most folks’ approach,” says Tim Cole, sustainability officer for the Virginia Beach schools. “A lot of people might build LEED buildings and stop there. But we’re trying to develop the infrastructure, then integrate sustainability throughout the school district and educate the public at the same time. These buildings become tangible objects around the city, so when we talk about this stuff, people can see things happening, and realize it’s not rocket science.”


Visitors to Kellam, for example, might learn about the school’s geothermal well field, vegetated roof, and bamboo wood gymnasium floor. And students learn and work in the school’s expansive courtyard, which was designed (with

Floyd E. Kellam High School is the 8th LEED certified school in the district.

Photos: Ara Howrani.

the help of previous students) to capture and reuse rainwater. Architects have visited several other schools to explain to young children exactly how their heating and lighting systems save energy, and Cole himself recently Skyped into a classroom from a construction site, explaining the new school’s sustainable features to its pint-sized future occupants. Officials are hoping to do more, including adding a new two-year course of study centered on renewable technologies for interested students.


But why bother connecting construction with curriculum? Sure, Virginia Beach’s LEED buildings help the environment and save the school district money on its water and energy bills, but the state’s standardized tests don’t ask questions about solar panels and low-flow toilets. Why not skip the stuff about green building and squeeze in five extra minutes of math or literacy test prep, instead?



Tim Cole shares his vision for building sustainable generations.

For one, the emphasis on sustainability provides educators with an opportunity to make connections across different content areas, helping students dig deep with real-world examples and project-based assignments. An English teacher might assign reading materials on climate change, for instance, while math and science teachers cover the more technical aspects of the topic, and a social studies teacher leads discussions about the societal causes and consequences of a warming planet. (Kellam was designed specifically with this sort of teaching in mind, with built-in collaboration space for teachers and movable dividing walls that allow teachers to consolidate their classes.)


Sustainability isn’t merely a means to teach other subjects, though. Virginia Beach officials consider the topic essential on its own—something students need to learn about to prepare them for the future. “We’re raising good stewards of the planet,” says James Pohl, executive director of secondary teaching and learning for the district. “Instead of, let’s build better drills that go deeper in the ocean, it’s let’s see how we can avoid doing that.”


“If we can develop students who have that mindset,” he adds, “who knows what they’ll create in the future?”


For a large organization like the Virginia Beach schools to fully embrace sustainable development, it needs at least one person to agitate, to advocate, to keep bringing up stormwater retention and operable windows and low-VOC paints until everyone else finally buys in, too. In Virgina Beach, that person is Tim Cole.


The former Navy SEAL came to the district as a project manager in 2001 after a stint in the private sector. (When he left the SEALs, he considered becoming either an architect or a stuntman. His wife insisted on the relative safety of the drafting table, although with his shaved head he might still be able to stand in for Bruce Willis in a pinch.)


Hermitage Elementary School was one of Cole’s first projects in Virginia Beach, and the building was already budgeted before he came to the district. “We talked to the architects and engineers and said, ‘We’d like to see if we can make this a LEED building, here’s our budget,’” Cole says. “It wasn’t budgeted for LEED, but let’s see what we can do.”


As a SEAL, Cole says he had to be constantly aware of his environment (which, he says, was usually “cold, wet, and miserable”), and so his current focus on the built environment makes a certain sort of sense to him. “Most SEALs are good at solving problems,” he says. “You have a small group of dedicated guys who are able to overcome much larger odds. To me, it’s very much in line with sustainability. It’s a daunting problem, so it was an interesting challenge.”


Cole wasn’t around when Hermitage opened as Virginia’s first LEED-certified elementary school in 2005. After the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, he’d re-enlisted in the military, signing up for the Navy Reserve, and now he’d been called up for a tour in Iraq. When he returned home, Virginia Beach had three more school construction projects underway, and Cole asked whether the projects were on track for LEED certification. They weren’t.


“An interesting discussion came out of that,” Cole says. School officials had talked about the possibility of incorporating green elements into buildings without perusing formal certification, but Cole came to realize that those sustainable features tended to fall by the wayside unless there was a mechanism in place to ensure accountability. “People say, we’ll design for LEED, but if no one is tracking it, they’re really loose about it. You’re not getting the same building. To say you’re not going to pay $5,000 at the end to get the plaque, in a $50 million or $100 million project, is asinine.”


Tony Arnold, director of facilities planning and construction for the Virginia Beach schools (and Cole’s boss), gives Cole credit for making the district a leader in sustainable development. “It’s a good example of what a difference one guy can make,” Arnold says. He paints a mental picture of Cole, the SEAL, “dropping out of a helicopter into an educational bureaucracy” and tackling his mission. “It takes a unique personality. You’ve got to be willing to take a little bit of a risk. Sustainable buildings are mainstream today, but when we started doing it, people weren’t talking about sustainability.”


Today, the school system’s LEED buildings total more than 1.6 million square feet, representing over10 percent of the district’s building space. The schools have also commissioned a firm to audit its greenhouse gas emissions and develop a plan to reduce the schools’ carbon footprint. Since 2006, the number of environmental clubs in the 86-school district has increased from six to 72, and the number of outdoor teaching gardens has gone up from five to 64.


During that same time period, other school districts near Virginia Beach have followed the district’s lead, perusing green building certification for their own school construction projects.


“I think there’s a little bit of that ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ going on,” says Bryna Dunn, director of sustainability planning and design for area firm Moseley Architects, which compiled the district’s emissions report. “They were definitely pioneers, and they really do influence all of their peers.”



Chris Freeman teaches advanced placement environmental science at Kellam in one of the open-air classroom.

That’s exactly what Cole—whose motto is “Think big, start small, act now”—was hoping for. “You want to be that pebble in the pond,” he says. “You want that ripple effect to go out to a broader and broader audience. We’ve been able to highlight what we’ve done and change other folks’ behavior. They start to see the numbers—we’re saving all this money, it has all these benefits. You become an example, where people look and say, ‘If these guys are doing it, why aren’t we doing it?’”


Cole has fielded calls from school officials in Kentucky, Georgia, and even Australia seeking his advice on green building—which is a tad ironic, given that he initially wanted the district to “fly under the radar” with its sustainability efforts. He’d seen too many good ideas scuttled by the drama that sometimes comes with public debate, and he didn’t want Virginia Beach’s school building projects to be influenced by the political fights surrounding climate change and environmentalism. And so, just as he had done in the SEALs, he quietly went about his mission, focused on results rather than publicity.


“All along, the theory has been, we’re going to do our own thing, we’re going to try to lead by example, and eventually people will notice what we’re doing,” Cole says. He’s only received about a half dozen notes from people who disagree with the district’s approach, including an email from one man who called him a communist. “Now, it doesn’t really matter if people get up in arms about it, because it’s hard to argue with success.” When rain falls on the roof of Kellam High, it follows a path set out by the school’s former graduates. While the building was being planned,

environmental science and drafting students participated in a charrette with architects to help design the courtyard that now separates classroom space from a central commons area in the school’s hub-and-spoke layout.


“They came up with some pretty ingenious ways to get the water to move from one end to another,” says Michael Ross, the lead architect on the project.


At the west end of the courtyard, rainwater is used to irrigate squash, greens, and herbs in the school’s edible garden. The vegetables grow in raised beds, arranged in the form of a maze, which sit just outside the school’s culinary classrooms. Excess water flows through runnels in the central gathering garden, which features amphitheater seating where teachers sometimes hold classes. Eventually, the water reaches the infiltration garden, where it soaks indigenous wetland grasses until it seeps back down into the water table.


Even a proposed apiary, which didn’t make it into the courtyard due to obvious safety concerns, was located elsewhere on the school grounds, and students in a beekeeping club learn how to maintain the hive.


Christopher Freeman, who teaches Advanced Placement environmental science at Kellam, says students were “shocked” at the amount of responsibility they were given, and that the real-world stakes of the design project motivated them to put in extra effort.

Learning and Health Impacts of Green School Buildings


  • Task speed increases significantly when students are exposed to outdoor air.
  • Exposure to daylight is associated with higher levels of student learning.
  • Kids attending naturally-ventilated child care centers have lower asthma and allergy levels than those in air-conditioned buildings.
  • A study in one school district showed that student test scores went up following school construction projects.


SOURCE: The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance, McGraw-Hill Research Foundation, in partnership with the Center for Green Schools.

VA Beach Public School LEED Timeline


2005 – Hermitage Elementary School, the first LEED certified elementary school in Virginia, opens in Virginia Beach.


2010 – The LEED Silver Windsor Oaks Elementary is dedicated.


2010 – Renaissance Academy, a LEED Gold school, opens. It is the first building in the district to use reclaimed rainwater to flush toilets.


2011 – The district unveils the LEED Platinum Pupil Transportation Services Maintenance Facility, the first building in the city to incorporate wind energy turbines.


2011 – The LEED Silver Virginia Beach Middle School opens.


2012 – College Park Elementary opens. It is the first LEED Platinum school in Virginia.


2012 – The LEED Gold Great Neck Middle School, featuring solar water heaters, renewable building supplies, and a reflective roof, is dedicated.


2014 – The 325,000-square-foot Kellam High School opens and becomes the eighth LEED certified school in Virginia Beach.

“They worked harder than I’ve ever seen,” he says. “They were all going to graduate before the building was fully developed. I think they saw themselves as handing down a legacy, and having input on how their younger brothers and sisters would utilize the space and learn.”



The beekeeping club at the apiary.

Matt Antonelli, a Kellam alumnus who participated in the courtyard charrette and is now a senior at Virginia Tech, says projects like this one put him “ahead of the curve” when he arrived at college. “It was a cool project, because it was more in-depth and got me thinking, got me to do my own research. I learned about a lot of things that weren’t necessarily taught to me in class, like pervious concrete and retention gardens, because I was looking those things up.”


While only one set of students was able to design the courtyard, officials plan to use the space to help educate generations to come. Cooking classes and gardening clubs work in the edible garden, science students study biodiversity in the retention garden, and teachers hold “Socratic seminars” in the amphitheater space, just to enjoy nice days. Eventually, signage explaining the stormwater capture process will be put up, so that anyone passing through can learn about the purpose of the gardens.


When teachers and students first moved into the building, earth science teacher Christopher Henry was teaching a unit on water, and he took his class out into the courtyard for a peek at real-world examples of what they were reading about in their textbooks.


“I just let them loose and said, ‘Pretend that it’s raining right now,’ and they had to figure out where all the water would go,” he says. “I really left it up to my students to tell me why it was built this way. We had some really neat conversations.”


Cristina Biddlecome, a senior at the school, says the emphasis on sustainability is unmistakable, from the motion-activated hand driers in the bathrooms to the green roof. “It’s very evident everywhere you go that it’s a green building.”


Jennifer Seydel, executive director of the Green Schools National Network, has visited Virginia Beach several times. “I’m in awe every time I walk through a building,” says Seydel, a former teacher. At Kellam, she sees practically limitless lessons to be taught about earth science, ecology, and other subjects. “If I were going to jump back into the classroom, I would jump into a building like this,” she says. “Maybe when I retire, I’ll go back to teaching, and I’ll move to Virginia Beach.”


While high schoolers are able to study the issue more deeply, younger children tend to instantly “get” why sustainability matters, says Clay Dills, an architect who designed two LEED buildings for the district.


“With a 10-year-old kid, if you say that [an LED] light bulb lasts longer and uses 75 percent less energy, and you tell them electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant, you don’t have to say anything else to them,” Dills says. “They just say, ‘Well, that’s what we should be doing.’”

Dills designed College Park Elementary, the state’s first LEED Platinum school, and after it opened in 2012, he came in to talk with kids about the school’s sustainable features. He followed an exploratory lesson plan, asking students provocative questions and allowing them to figure things out, like how the school’s low-velocity HVAC system works. “I would say, ‘Does anyone know where the hot or cold air comes from in the classroom?’ They would all point at a giant bench in the back of the room with the grill. I say, ‘Can you hear it?, And they say, ‘No,’ and I say, ‘That’s because there’s not a huge fan, so you save energy.’” Next, Dills would ask how cool air moved through the room without the help of a fan, and the kids would figure out that the air was pulled up to their warm bodies and then eventually to the ceiling. “They essentially understand thermodynamics. They just don’t know that’s what we’re talking about.”

A multimillion dollar school building would be an incredibly expensive tool for teaching students about hot and cold air, if that’s all it did. But of course, students have to go to school somewhere, and Dills points out that the efficient HVAC system costs about the same as a traditional system while saving between $15,000 and $25,000 a year in energy costs. “You tell that to a kid,” Dills says, “and he’s going to kick you in the head for not doing it.”



Parent Gina Foresta; volunteers in the Linkhorn Park garden.

True to the district’s holistic vision of sustainability, kids are learning about the issue even at school buildings that aren’t LEED certified, often through learning gardens. Gina Foresta, a parent volunteer, runs an after-school gardening club for about 30 students at Linkhorn Park Elementary. “It’s not just about digging in the dirt and growing food,” she says, “but what it means to eat seasonally, what it means to eat locally, and what does that mean for the planet.” Some students have pushed their parents to start vegetable gardens at home, and a school janitor who grew up on a farm in Georgia was inspired to start growing some of his own food again, Foresta says.


“Especially at the elementary age, it’s really important how we teach these children about sustainability, especially climate change,” she says. “It can come across almost as a scary future. So we need to frame it as, ‘What can you do?’ They’re not old enough to vote yet. They’re not old enough to make big financial decisions. But in their own day-to-day lives, they can make small changes that have a huge impact.”


At Kemps Landing/Old Donation School, an elementary school for gifted children, fourth-grade teacher Melissa Follin teaches a unit on oyster restoration. A nonprofit group gives the school a thousand oysters to raise, and at the end of the year, students release them at a sanctuary reef in Chesapeake Bay.


“Kids naturally have that inclination to care about nature. They’re not as worried about shortcuts, or getting things fast,” Follin says. “They’ll be able to go one day and look at that reef and say, ‘I helped grow that.’ I think there’s more power when they can see what they’re doing, and they have ownership over it.”


Cole says he didn’t start thinking seriously about sustainability issues until he began working for the schools. “For everybody, the light comes on for a different reason,” he says. “They read a book, or they see a movie. About the time I came to work for the school division, I started thinking about what’s going to happen with my kids, and my grandkids, and the light came on.” Now, Cole is working to help “the light come on” early for the kids in Virginia Beach. He hopes that the lessons they learn from oysters and squash gardens and green construction practices will stay with them until they’re the ones in charge, deciding what sort of world they’ll leave for the generations that come after them.


“We’re really trying to teach that next generation of kids,” Cole says. “They need to build a smarter environment for themselves, so we’re trying to get them thinking in the right frame of mind. They’re the next generation of sustainable citizens.”