At one of the oldest elementary school districts in Arizona, Washington Elementary School District No. 6’s employees and administrators are distinguishing the district with their extra efforts. They went through a lengthy process to obtain grants from Cause and Effect and Brighten a Life for sustainable arts and music buildings. Additionally, a large number of the district’s teachers are achieving National Board Certification (NBC) from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the Acacia Elementary School was included in the A+ School of Excellence Program by the Arizona Educational Foundation in 2010.
“That’s a huge process and an enormous amount of effort on the part of staff to get that recognized, but it’s huge,” Superintendent Dr. Susie Cook asserts. “We have an enormous population of certified teachers onboard. NBC teachers had to go through a national test and create a portfolio. It takes a year to get NBC certification – it’s very rigorous. I have an amazing staff. We recognize them when they earn that.” Additionally, the district is building a new school that will include a geothermal system to save energy.
The Green Schoolhouses will be built at two of the district’s 32 schools, Orangewood and Roadrunner. “There are only two Green Schoolhouses awarded in K12 in the state of Arizona,” Superintendent Dr. Susie Cook points out. “The Green Schoolhouses were offered to us as a grant opportunity from an organization called Brighten a Life in combination with Cause and Effect. They just put out a request for proposal for a grant in school districts all over Arizona. They wanted to go in and create these buildings in communities that have high needs.”
The two district schools that applied for the grant “performed heroic tasks to accomplish the ultimate grant award,” Cook stresses. “We had to show we were willing to be sustainable, the history of what we’ve done thus far with sustainability, what we were willing to do – the site work is our responsibility, the pad of the building is our responsibility. We earned the grant.
“We have been working for the better part of two years with a variety of people who gathered the volunteers to put these buildings together,” she continues. “It is the only initiative that we know of nationally where there are volunteers who will be building buildings. Contractors, architects and very skilled tradesmen have all volunteered to provide their services. We are just in the process of finalizing when construction will begin on the first one.”
Construction of the Green Schoolhouse at Orangewood is scheduled for completion by the end of June, after which the construction of the one at Roadrunner School will begin in the fall. “They will be built very quickly once we get going,” Cook promises. “So it’s been a huge effort and a lot of marketing on the part of the organization that pulled this all together.”
The Green Schoolhouses will be approximately 5,000 square feet and include classrooms and areas for the students to create and showcase artwork and the performing arts. “They’re really community showplaces,” Cook declares. “We want the community to use them, to be able to come in and see what our kids are doing. It’s a tremendous learning event for our children, because the whole idea is we are educating our children about green efforts and sustainability. The whole initial premise was sustainability.”
The Green Schoolhouses are built on a tight site with sustainable materials and aim for LEED Platinum certification. “The function is that they are art and performance and music-oriented,” Cook continues. “We’ll be adding more art and music at those schools. We have art and music in every school – we have not cut that through all the budget difficulties.”
Energy efficiency is important throughout the district. The Lookout Mountain school is being razed and a brand-new school being built, half of which will use a geothermal system to economize mostly on cooling costs. “We’re in the process right now of getting all the test well data so we know how deep we have to go to start digging the wells,” Cook explains.
The wells will be under the school’s soccer and baseball fields. “The wells will occupy the majority of space that is not a building – there is a need for that many wells,” she declares. “We’re occupying every conceivable field and free area that is not occupied by the building to dig the wells. It takes every available open space. This is a very large school.”
A pilot geothermal project at Desert View school has resulted in a 40-percent reduction in energy costs, but it is a smaller school than Lookout Mountain. “We’re always looking for ways to conserve cost,” Cook points out. “It’s a bit of an investment upfront.” However, Cook says she believes the long-term return on the investment makes the upfront expense worthwhile.
Recently, the district received incentives from its local power company to install solar energy at several sites and is working on determining the specifics of the installations. “We’re trying to save money every way we can and get the best bang for our buck,” Cook stresses. “If we’re saving money on energy costs, then that money can go to students and staff. I like to think we’re using our taxpayer money more wisely when we do.”
Working with local organizations is important to Cook. “We have made a tremendous effort to reach out to our community groups,” she says. “We currently have a business advisory team. At our very last meeting, we had 100 businesses represented.” They ranged from mass-market retailers to small businesses. The district also has reached out to local churches, block watch groups and even retirement communities.
The district’s administrators work hard to be visible in the community. “Each of our administrators here at the administration center have an adopted school,” Cook reveals. “They work with that school’s parent-teacher organization or go out to site council meetings. So there is availability of our central office administrators at the school level. We try to show as often as we can that this is all about everybody.”
Enrollment in the district is up. “There’s a lot of competition,” Cook concedes. “We have a lot of charter schools in Arizona. So it behooves us whether you believe in the spirit of competition or not to distinguish ourselves every way that we can.”
Cook’s management style is to try to engage everyone in a meeting. “We believe in collaboration,” she emphasizes. “I am not a top-down superintendent. I am involved in a lot of the groups that meet in our districts, and I have no problem making a decision, but at the same time, I truly do believe the answer is in the room. At the end of the day, I have the best job in the world. I believe that and try to show that every day. I care a great deal – I think it helps.”
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