By Wayne Dominick
The staff at Cumberland County Elementary School is learning that you can add by subtracting.
This isn’t because of the latest math initiative, but the result of the school’s participation in an energy-savings program.
Cumberland County is one of many districts participating in the School Energy Managers Project (SEMP), administered by KSBA and funded with federal economic stimulus dollars.
Photo: Cumberland County Elementary fourth-graders Riley Scott and Katelyn Moreland take advantage of available natural light by working next to the windows. They said they enjoy the blackout days because they do more and don’t have to sit at their desks as much. “It’s pretty cool,” said Riley. “I think we should do this at least once a week.”
With the help of energy manager Bill Gittings, Cumberland County Schools saved more than $20,000 in energy costs last year.
“That might not sound like a lot to people in big districts, but it really helped our bottom line,” Superintendent John Hurt said.
According to Cumberland County Elementary Principal Carolyn Spears, however, the real benefit isn’t what the program has added to the bottom line, it’s what it has added to the classrooms.
“I think the best thing that has come out of this is that it made us more aware of how we’re delivering instruction,” she said.
That revelation came about because of the staff’s decision to stage “blackouts” – days when energy consumption is cut to a bare minimum. On blackout days, only emergency lighting is on and all computers, printers, copiers and other nonessential devices are turned off. The machines are not only off on blackout days, but teachers are not allowed to use them in advance for materials to be used during the blackout period.
Instructional Specialist Valerie Shelley said this created some challenges for her and the staff.
“Blackout days mean no worksheets, no computer time and in many cases, no reading time,” she said. “We had to come up with activities to keep students engaged and still cover the curriculum.”
Shelley said the teachers who noticed the biggest difference in student involvement were in the lower grades.
“After the first day, the kindergarten and first grade teachers were all talking about how much more engaged students were doing hands-on activities all day,” she said.
Second-grader Emily Roach confirmed this, saying, “We did a lot of neat stuff and it made learning fun.”
As a result, Cumberland County Elementary teachers are using fewer worksheets and investigating ways to incorporate more hands-on activities in the classrooms.
“We had no idea we’d be changing the way we do things every day when we started this,” said Spears, “but we’re not only saving energy, we’re improving instructional delivery.”
The challenge to find ways to teach without technology seemed to vary with the staff’s experience.
“For some of us,” said 25-year veteran teacher Reneta Henson, “it just meant going back to doing things they way we did way back in the ‘Dark Ages’ before we all had computers in our room.”
She added she wouldn’t want to do without her computers, but going a day without them every now and then is a good idea. “It’s a little more work for us, but the students get into it and that makes it worthwhile.”
Energy manager Gittings, who works with several districts in the area, said the Cumberland County staff’s attitude has been a big part in the success of the overall energy efficiency program.
“Everyone there has embraced the program and has been on board from day one with implementing it and finding ways to save energy,” he said. “They’re not only looking at ways to save in the schools, but they’re doing a great job of educating the students and the entire community on the importance of energy savings.”
To make sure every classroom is doing all it can to save energy, each one has an energy monitor. The energy monitor is a student who follows a daily checklist, making sure all unnecessary lights and computers are turned off when not in use. Jesse LaGrange, energy monitor in his third-grade classroom, says the job has gotten much easier with time.
“At the beginning of the year, I had to do a lot of reminding people to turn things off, but now they almost always do it on their own,” he said.
When pressed to identify the biggest offender, Jesse hesitated before whispering, “Our teacher forgets to turn off her computer a lot.”
School board member Terry Riley said changing the way students think about energy is as important as the monetary savings.
“Of course it’s nice to save every dollar we can, but I’m really proud of the impact this program is having on the community. I have two kids in school and they’re always reminding me about turning out lights and other ways to save energy. I hear the same thing from other parents,” he said. Riley added that he even implemented some of the idea at the car dealership he manages.
— Dominick is a writer from Frankfort