Virginia Energy Sense interviewed Erin Russo, principal of Discovery Elementary located in Arlington County, to learn how her school is teaching students the importance of sustainability and energy conservation. As the school’s founding principal, we’d love to learn more about your background. Can you tell us more about your previous professional experiences and how you came to be at Discovery Elementary? I was an English and Film and Media teacher in Fairfax county. When I finished my Master’s in Administration and Policy Studies, I applied for the assistant principalship at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington and was Assistant Principal for eight years. When the county started talking about building an elementary school on the Williamsburg site, I had just finished by doctorate and got involved with the project by being on the Building Level Planning Committee. We worked as a community with Arlington Public Schools (APS) and the design team, and the more I learned about the new elementary school, the more intrigued I became. I later interviewed and was appointed the year before the school opened its doors in 2015. What were challenges/opportunities you noticed or experienced when you first started as principal? A large part of my job was working with the design team to ensure we were making the best instructional decisions. Another important aspect was building community, where the school was drawing from three local schools to relieve crowding. The problem is that everyone in Arlington loves their elementary school (a great problem to have). I spent a lot of time planning and holding meets and greets for the communities, and was able to visit the three schools and meet the children. The students were involved in naming the school, choosing the school colors and mascot. Discovery Elementary’s building has been referred to as net-zero. Can you walk us through as to what that means? Net-zero means that we are making more energy than we use and we should actually change the terminology to net-positive. Between the solar panels and the geo-thermal wells, Discovery Elementary is making more energy than it uses. In fact, legislation was passed so that our access power can be used to offset the cost of other APS school’s energy bills. We noticed that Discovery has received several accolades for its net-zero design. Can you share some of these with our readers? We have been awarded the U.S. Department of Education’s Green School award and also received the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco Schools Green Flag Award. Last year, our patrols and Eco-Action team earned the Connect the Dots award from the U.S. Green Building Council. We have received a host of architectural awards as well. Examples: 2018 First Place Technology Award ASHRAE Region VII 2017 AIA COTE Top Ten Award Winner American Institute of Architect’s Committee on the Environment (COTE) 2017 Green Ribbon School U.S. Department of Education 2017 Presidential Citation for Sustainability AIA|DC 2017 Platinum Design Award Virginia School Boards Association 2017 Special Jury Recognition Award Virginia Chapter of the Association for Learning Environments 2016 Project of Distinction Association for Learning Environments 2016 Honor Award AIA Central Virginia Fall 2016 Honorable Mention Learning By Design 2015 Award of Excellence Design Arlington Awards ENERGY STAR The level of detail in the online energy dashboard really stood out to us. How do you and the teachers incorporate energy saving values into the student lesson plans? We work really hard to incorporate education for sustainability when planning lessons for our students and the energy dashboard is an authentic learning tool that can be incorporated into all disciplines. Students are excited to learn about graphing, energy conservation, weather patterns, and other topics when manipulating live data produced by their school building. We’ve worked with our staff to provide time, training, and sharing of lesson plans and will continue to grow our skills. We are excited to build on the data we can collect, where for example our Safety Patrols track the number of car riders, bus takers, and walkers each morning. We also participate in extensive recycling and weigh our trash each day, and hope to expand and include data on how much paper we use and paper towels. When the students are involved in the data collection, they are proud of their efforts. What’s your advice for parents and their children who are trying to conserve energy and lower their energy use? Start small. Choose one project, do your research, and commit. Seeing the results in data will inspire you to green your life! What do you do to save energy in your home/workplace that someone else can feasibly do? Change your traditional incandescent lightbulbs to LEDs, remember to turn the lights off when you exit a room, think about water conservation, brushing your teeth and other routines can also be alternated. What ways do you think VES could partner with school systems to help them teach children about saving energy and helping the schools take steps to save energy? We want learning to be authentic as possible. Experts in the field talking to students about their careers and ways students can make an impact and are always welcome. Have you seen interest in energy efficiency/conservation initiatives in other school systems in Virginia? We are part of the National Green Schools Catalyst Schools which helps us learn from one another and grow our green practices. Tell us more about the Eco-Action team: why was it formed and what sets it apart from other energy efficiency school programs in the state and the U.S.? Several elementary schools have a traditional student council with an elected position, but we wanted to make a more inclusive leadership team. Our Eco-Action team is open for anyone to join. Students sign up and meet monthly to learn more about sustainability or to participate in audits of our school and building. We like to think that we are growing green leaders. Are there any other projects led by the Eco-Action team that we should know about? Our Eco-Action team leads our school in the audits we conduct to earn green flags through the National Wildlife Foundations Eco School program. Students are our green champions and help their classmates make green choices, such as going on the morning news show advocating for fellow students to use just one paper towel to dry their hands after handwashing. Last year, our Eco-Action team received the Connect the Dots award for their campaign to promote sustainable transportation. This year, the Eco-Action team is focused on Schoolyard Habitats. The team also recently took the Pollinator Pledge.