District 65 approves solar panels at King Arts magnet school

Andy Weir, Reporter

The District 65 School Board approved last month a plan to install solar panels at an Evanston magnet school by the end of the year to boost energy efficiency and to educate students about sustainability.

The new project at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School will include the construction of one solar panel system, estimated to cost $8,000, in addition to incorporating new aspects to the school curriculum focused on solar energy.

“The city is always looking for ways to immediately reduce greenhouse gasses, so we’re super excited about the district’s plans,” Evanston’s sustainability manager Catherine Hurley said.

The Chicago-based renewable energy vendor Windfree Solar will be constructing the new solar panels for King Arts. Windfree Solar estimates District 65 could save as much as $127 per year on energy costs.

“We always want to pay attention to the energy costs we have, because as those costs increase, we have less resources to spend on our educational mission,” District 65 superintendent Paul Goren said.

The bulk of the project’s cost will come from a $7,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, an organization designed to provide funding to nonprofits for conservation purposes. This specific grant’s purpose was to promote the education of renewable energy for grade school students. King Arts’ PTA will cover the remaining $1,000 cost as well as $500 in additional fees.

Goren said King Arts’ PTA has been pivotal in bringing this grant money to the school.

“In this case, it was really the parents who actually went about getting the grant to move forward with this,” he said. “Their enthusiasm, their hard work all contributed to getting this grant, so this is being done with the great enthusiasm of the parent community.”

The seven-step grant application process was spearheaded largely by Ethan Chatfield, an Environmental Protection Agency employee and a school parent, as well as other parents who worked to persuade District 65 to approve the project and to obtain the grant itself.

“Working with the EPA, I had brought these units to other schools, so I thought I should bring it to my own kids’ (school),” Chatfield said. “The science curriculum is being cut and a number of parents are concerned, so this is a way to try to get students and the district excited about solar energy and science.”

The school sees this project as not just an opportunity to conserve energy but also to educate students about the possibilities of solar energy, Goren said.

Chatfield said the grant also will send some teachers from King Arts to a conference where they will learn about the various dynamics and intricacies of solar energy.

“This is opening the door for young people to learn more about solar energy and learn about it right at their schoolhouse,” Goren said. “There’s a set curriculum they will use, which I believe will be through our science instruction.”

From the city’s perspective, this project is more about the educational value for students than the cost benefit, Hurley said.

“We’re certainly not pressuring schools to do this, but we do applaud (King Arts) for taking the initiative,” she said.

Goren said this type of project isn’t new to the district, since other schools have completed similar projects.

While many in District 65 remain excited about the new solar panels, there are no active plans for solar panel facilities at other schools at this time, he said.

The new solar panels are expected to be completed by the year’s end when Chatfield and other parents hope to host an unveiling ceremony, dubbed a “Solarbration.”

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