Read more: Community Colleges Doing Big Things

Ninety percent of the US population lives within 25 miles of a community college. There are nearly 1,200 of them scattered across the nation, and they serve 46 percent of all undergrads in the United States, providing an affordable, accessible path to higher education, no matter their socioeconomic status, educational background, or citizenship.

Community colleges also are the fastest-growing sector of US higher education, which is why the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools came to the conclusion that to forge a partnership with these institutions and their students was the way to truly make all schools sustainable and healthy places to live, learn, work, and play. Vanessa Santos, the community colleges specialist at the Center for Green Schools, says this effort has the potential to lead to true market transformation.

Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland
Above the library’s bold typographical signage, the façade has a glass glazing system with sunshades that minimize solar heat gain within the building.

A green school, as defined by Center for Green Schools director Rachel Gutter, is one that creates a healthy environment that is conducive to learning while saving energy, resources, and money. By May 2011, the center already had a successful K-12 program established, which provided hands-on opportunities for students to learn about sustainability in their classrooms while also giving schools the resources to renovate their buildings. Around this time, the center began considering how to make the biggest impact on higher education, and after much research, Santos says the organization realized the missing link seemed to be community colleges.

“So many community colleges are technology-driven and focused on skilled trades, so creating an opportunity for community college students to become LEED accredited made perfect sense,” Santos says.

This is how the Center for Green Schools’ Community Green initiative emerged, with the aim of increasing accessibility to LEED for community college educational facilities and campus development, supporting student leadership and advocacy efforts, and promoting sustainability in curriculum and career objectives. Over the years, the center has developed many relationships with universities, but the Community Green initiative is its only formalized program. It took nearly a year to get off the ground because the organization wanted to offer a unique package that would result in the biggest impact. The end result was offering community colleges free membership to the USGBC for a year and all the benefits associated with the membership.

The Community Green initiative officially launched in August 2012, and already, 115 community colleges are participating in the program. But getting community colleges to sign on, despite the absence of any associated costs, still wasn’t an easy sell. As “sustainability” and “green” became buzzwords, educational institutions have been inundated with requests to participate in various programs, some legitimate, many not. As a result, competition is fierce, and the Center for Green Schools has had to work extra hard to differentiate itself from the many organizations promising to affect change.

Camden County College in Blackwood, New Jersey
Camden County College’s Blackwood campus underwent a major green overhaul while using programs and information from the Center for Green Schools, and the campus was able to achieve LEED Silver status.

“We’ve had to think carefully about the unique value proposition we bring to the table,” Santos says. ”We’ve been successful by directly engaging faculty and students. Many of the students have full-time jobs and they don’t live on campus, so generally speaking, this is a much harder population to reach, but when given the right resources and the right educational tools, it’s also the population that can stand to gain the most from the program and have the biggest impact. The community colleges we’ve worked with have really taken what we’ve provided them and run with it.”

Both companies and four-year universities have a lot to gain by hitching themselves to the green bandwagon; it’s a smart PR move that will make them appear progressive and result in an upswing in public perception. But all too often it’s just that—a PR move. With community colleges, however, it’s different. Santos says the desire to be sustainable and to train students in green collar jobs seems more genuine in the community college sphere. “There’s really no benefit to promoting yourself as a green college if you’re not doing anything to actually make it happen or banging your head against the wall trying to make it happen,” Santos says. “What’s happening with sustainability on community college campuses isn’t the sexiest thing ever, but it’s a lot of passionate people getting their hands dirty.”

One such college is Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Washington, where the school’s sustainable movement is being led in large part by Dan Smith. Smith began teaching a residential construction class at Clover Park in 2007. After a few years, interest began to build for a sustainable building science program, and Smith was one of the earliest advocates. After taking a few building science classes, he began working on obtaining the grant that would eventually bring the Community Green program to Clover Park.

Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Washington
Clover Park Technical College was able to launch its Zero Energy House with the help of the Center for Green Schools.

“My interest in the subject was a pretty quick progression,” says Smith, who is now a certified Sustainable Building Advisor, BPI Building Analyst, HERS Rater, Level 2 Thermographer, and Green Advantage Certified Practitioner. “Sustainability wasn’t on my radar for the longest time. As a contractor and member of the Master Builders Association, I knew about green building, but I had no concept of what it really entailed. Now I’m fully invested, and I’ve gotten a foothold on green-building design and sustainability. It takes a while to wrap your head around, but once you get it, it changes how you see the world.”

When Smith was contacted by the Center for Green Schools about joining its Community Green initiative, he jumped at the chance despite having no idea what he was getting himself into. “I have a habit of jumping in the deep end without a life preserver,” he says. Clover Park is now well on its way to a greener future, providing students with hands-on learning opportunities and the ability to obtain their LEED Green Associate credential. Smith is one of just five of the country’s USGBC Community Green Chairs, and he also leads an on-campus USGBC student group. Of all his recent green-related achievements, however, Smith is most proud of Clover Park’s Zero Energy House, an idea he had to enable students to conduct air-leakage tests. As time progressed, the structure grew and began to take on a life of its own as the first educational, zero-energy structure in Washington to have a totally transparent systems approach to green building.

Smith estimates that more than 300 students have put their hands on the project, with participating departments ranging from sustainable building science and interior design to HVAC and welding. Students have hung siding, assembled a rooftop solar photovoltaic system, and installed a solar hot-water system to ensure the house produces as much energy as it uses.

One of the students who has worked on the Zero Energy House is 29-year-old Christopher Saucedo, who is vice president of Smith’s USGBC student group and nearing completion of Clover Park’s two-year sustainable building science program. Saucedo will graduate the program as a LEED Green Associate, and he hopes to enter the green building sector of a construction company or become an energy auditor. Saucedo says the time he spent working on the Zero Energy House gave him an educational experience unlike any other in his life.

Wayne County Community College District in Detroit
Hamilton Anderson Associates designed the Academic Building, which is targeting LEED Platinum, for Wayne County Community College in Detroit.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to take such a hands-on approach to learning,” Saucedo says. “It’s one thing to learn from a book, but it’s another to immerse yourself in your learning and apply the principals in a real world way. The Community Green initiative is a great opportunity for community colleges. My generation has a real interest in sustainability, but sometimes it’s difficult figuring out where to start.”

The success of the Community Green initiative isn’t going to be measured only by the number of schools that participate in the program, but rather by the impact each school is able to make. Eventually, Santos would like to build on the resources available to community colleges so that renovating old buildings into more sustainable structures becomes a bigger part of the puzzle. But for now, the goal is job placement for students and, more broadly, for students taking part in the initiative to transfer their knowledge to their local communities.

“We’d really like to see a grassroots movement happening in community colleges,” Santos says. “I absolutely believe that these students are an untapped resource, and it’s not even about obtaining a green job degree. The end goal is to transform communities. The initiative is like planting a seed, and the students will grow the movement. We want to see them advocating for sustainability on behalf of their communities because every community deserves a healthy, safe environment.”

Read more: Community Colleges Doing Big Things