Of the 350 American schools that applied for the Green Ribbon School title when it was offered by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012, the American Hebrew Academy (AHA) in Greensboro, North Carolina, was one of just 78 schools selected to receive the prestigious award.
Situated on 100 acres of forested land and bordering a 22-acre lake on the northwest side of the city, the AHA is a multidenominational, or ‘pluralistic,’ Jewish boarding school founded in 1996 by agronomist Maurice ‘Chico’ Sabbah. The 26-building campus opened in 2001 and was designed by architect Aaron Green, a former associate of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Geothermal wells on campus
Drawing on his agronomical and Jewish background, Sabbah founded AHA on the idea of tikkun olam, or ‘repairing the world.’ Although sustainability is a fundamental aspect of the school’s mission, it is not something AHA has had to forcibly articulate. According to Mark Spielman, director of admissions and administration at AHA, sustainability is simply a part of what the school is. He points to the school’s 756-well, closed-loop geothermal system as an example of this. “When they were building the school,” Spielman says, “they built a geothermal energy center, which was not only unheard of but was the largest of its kind at the time.” Data produced by the school suggests that the system reduces the campus heating and cooling costs by roughly 30 percent per year.
The students also are a big part of the school’s green aspects without necessarily knowing it. “It’s a large campus, but it’s very pedestrian,” Spielman says. “Students are walking or riding their bikes around campus. There are no cars anywhere, and through required wellness and fitness classes, our students are encouraged to be very active.” These efforts are further complemented by organic, locally grown dining options, and all food waste is added to a composting system that is used to fertilize a ‘Gardens of Israel’ garden, tended by the students. Food grown in the garden is then donated to a local homeless shelter. A green club and classes in Eco-Judaism are also offered.
AHA is home to roughly 155 high school students from around the country for the unique experience of boarding school. Aided by a low student-to-teacher ratio of 12 to 1, the school is expected to grow in the coming years with the geothermal system forecasted to save the school up to 60 percent on heating and cooling costs, one ingredient among many contributing to its status as a Green Ribbon School.
“Sustainability has always been at the forefront of our minds,” Spielman says. “Looking forward, we’re planning to improve and grow our environmental programs, as they mean so much to us.”