Take the Challenge

By Calvin Hennick

The Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans goes green with a little help from the local USGBC chapter.


Principal Timothy Rusnak with students from Benjamin Franklin High School. Photo: Marc Pagani

Principal Timothy Rusnak with students from Benjamin Franklin High School.
Photo: Marc Pagani


Plaques outside the auditorium at Benjamin Franklin High School—a selective charter school adjacent to the University of New Orleans—proudly display past issues of Newsweek that declare the school one of the best in the country.

But inside the auditorium, the ceiling is water damaged, some of the lighting doesn’t work properly, and the wooden seats are beginning to show signs of wear.

“If you’re playing on a national stage—pardon the metaphor,” says school principal and chief executive Timothy Rusnak, gesturing to the platform at the front of the theatre, “I think you should have a facility that puts your best foot forward. You don’t go to a wedding in your underwear.”

Shannon Print CF

Shannon Stage, executive director for USGBC Louisiana.

Many schools in New Orleans were already in rough shape a decade ago, and with many needing to be rebuilt after sustaining damage during Hurricane Katrina, Rusnak has little hope that Franklin will get any sort of major capital from the city for repairs. Although, through a partnership with United States Green Building Council Louisiana chapter, the school is upgrading and greening large parts of its infrastructure—for free.

The partnership sprouted from the chapter’s Green Schools Challenge program, when mentors working with area schools began making offers of donations. “You get someone, and they see the shape our schools are in, and they say, ‘What can we do to help?’” says Shannon Stage, executive director for USGBC Louisiana.

“The light bulb sort of went off,” says Erin Ryerson, a designer with a local architecture firm, who helped organize the effort. Ryerson is also the GreenBuild 2014 Host Chapter Committee chairperson. “We’ve got schools with needs. We’ve got businesses that ask all the time, ‘Where can we put our products to show them off?’ It was putting A and B together.”

Instead of spreading the donations to schools across the city, Stage says, the local chapter decided to focus its efforts by partnering with one school each year, for a program they’re calling the USGBC Louisiana Green School Showcase. Franklin High, whose students won the most recent Green Schools Challenge, is the first “Showcase School,” and has received donations from more than a dozen vendors.

Allison Bowler, chief financial officer at the school, estimates that Franklin has received about $100,000 worth of donated equipment, materials, and labor—quite a windfall for a school that hasn’t received a coat of paint in 25 years. “It is wonderful,” she says.

“It’s heaven-sent, really,” says Rusnak. Because the school’s students are high achieving, many people assume that Franklin doesn’t need money, and they direct their donations elsewhere. In fact, Rusnak says, if the school wants to continue to “set the pace,” it needs resources. “We have a limited budget. Any kind of donation is very much appreciated.”

In addition to being charitable, Ryerson says, the vendors are getting something out of the arrangement, too. For many of them schools are major customers, and it helps them sell to other schools if they can show that their products are working for Franklin.

One of the first donations was a water fountain from the manufacturer Elkay. The company has now donated three fountains, which also have a spout to fill up water bottles. In the first three months of use, Bowler says, students filled up their reusable bottles 10,000 times. “So that was 10,000 [plastic] water bottles that didn’t go into landfills.”

The school is also receiving new ceiling tiles and wall panels that create a better acoustic environment in classrooms, low-VOC paint, low-volume sinks and toilets, and windows that can be tinted on demand, among other items.

In addition to saving the school money on its energy bills, Bowler says, the new fixtures will also boost Franklin’s educational mission. “You don’t only learn in the classroom,” she says. “We’re also teaching the next generation about how to be socially responsible. The sooner they see it as a young adult, the longer they’ll carry it with them.”

These vendors have all donated time or materials to Franklin High as part of the Green School Showcase program:

Acme Brick, Tile & Stone
AirClean Systems
Associated Architectural Products Inc.
Bradley Corporation
CertainTeed Ceilings
C.T.W. Engineered Glazing Systems

Green Coast Enterprises
Landis Construction Co., LLC
Mohawk Flooring
Phoenix Recycling Inc.
PPG Paints

School Specialty
Siemens Industry, Inc.
StonePeak Ceramics Inc.
Superior Products, Inc.
Tandus Centiva