By. Tara McNerney, Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School
At Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School, our green school buildings – with their abundance of natural light and brightly colored walls – are not just a home, they’re a teaching tool.
Founded in 2011 by a small group of passionate families, Mundo Verde is a sustainability-focused public charter school located in Washington, DC. We prepare our students to be global stewards with a bilingual curriculum rooted in sustainability principles. And Mundo Verde believes that we must walk the talk; we teach our students to be sustainability advocates and we strive to be as sustainable as possible in our operations.
To build a school campus that embodied our sustainability mission, we partnered with Studio Twenty-Seven Architecture Firm, a firm committed to sustainable community-driven design. In 2014 we were granted by the state a 1920s-era school building to be our permanent home. In renovating this historic building, we kept certain things such as the beautiful wood paneled floors and brick exterior, but we breathed new life into the space by literally tearing down walls to let light in and uprooting the concrete schoolyard to plant trees. The following year we built an entirely new Early Childhood annex, filled with natural light, playful colors, and a third floor outdoor courtyard. The original 1920s building was recently certified LEED Gold and the new annex LEED Platinum.
Behind the design of our school was always the driving question of how it connected back to our mission. We asked of our architects and our teachers: “How can our school building teach our students to be global stewards?”
Mundo Verde is an Expeditionary Learning school. Under this model our students study a problem in depth for 10-12 weeks (these units of study are called “expeditions”). They consider the problem from different angles and create a final product that seeks to address it. The following are three ways that our students have used the campus to explore sustainability themes in their expeditions.
Water Conservation. Every spring, our third graders embark on the expedition Save the Water. They investigate Mundo Verde’s underground water cistern that collects rainwater from our rooftops and surrounding landscape and uses it to flush our toilets. Students calculate that this feature saves the school 300,000 gallons of water annually. Students regularly use our water fountain water bottle fillers, which tally on a small screen the amount of plastic water bottles saved. In math class third graders will discover that in less than five years, Mundo Verde diverts enough plastic water bottles from the landfill to fill our two-story auditorium!
Energy. Fourth graders at Mundo Verde take on the expedition Energy Drives Us. Presented with the problem of climate change and our dependency on nonrenewable energy sources, students are then sent to explore how Mundo Verde can make a difference. First they learn from our architects at Studio Twenty-Seven about the many energy efficiency features of our building, such as the “daylight harvesting” system in each classroom that senses the amount of incoming natural light and turns the classroom lights on or off. Students calculate our building’s carbon-dioxide emissions and find that it is 52% that of similar buildings. This year our fourth graders will partner with renewable energy nonprofits and businesses to propose a rooftop solar project for the school!
Gardens. When we first moved to our school building the campus was entirely covered in concrete. Now it supports native trees and shrubs, raised garden beds, an outdoor classroom, berry trellises, and a compost system. Students use these outdoor spaces on a regular basis to support aspects of their expeditions. Kindergarteners study animal habitat provided by the gardens. First graders learn about the cycle of food as they make compost in their classroom to put in our garden. Second graders dig in the soil to discover the clay, rocks, and minerals under their feet. Finally, every student receives a Cooking and Gardening class as part of our specials program in which students learn to grow, harvest, and cook produce from the garden.
What’s ahead…each year we seek to more deeply intertwine our sustainability curriculum with our green schoolyard and building. This spring we are excited to embark on a new partnership with the organization REAL School Gardens. Our second and third grade teachers will be trained and coached by a REAL School Gardens Educator as they plan and teach multiple outdoor nature-inspired lessons.
It was a magical turning point this fall, when our fifth graders led tours for visitors on the green attributes of our school building at a special school event. It was then we realized that we had reached that momentous point in learning, where our students not only understood the beauty of the building, they could now teach others!
Tara McNerney is the Sustainability Coordinator and a Cooking and Gardening teacher at Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School. She received her Master’s in Strategic Leadership Toward Sustainability at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden in 2011. She has served in her role with Mundo Verde for five years.