New technologies curb school bus pollution

For years, the familiar cloud of black exhaust pumped from U.S. school buses has fueled growing concerns over harmful effects of diesel emissions on students’ health. Now, environmentalists say, new technologies to reduce the potency of these pollutants are helping clear the air.

So far this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded $5 million to retrofit 5,000 school buses with environmentally friendly diesel oxidation catalysts and lower emission fuels as part of its two-year-old Clean School Bus USA demonstration program.

The funds were disbursed among 21 federal grants to school systems across the country to showcase cleaner technologies for school buses. President Bush hopes the success of the program will prompt Congress to approve his 2005 budget request, which includes a $65 million proposal to retrofit and upgrade the nation’s entire school bus fleet.

Launched in April 2003, the EPA program was intended to reduce children’s exposure to harmful diesel exhaust and the amount of air pollution created by diesel school buses. Last year, the agency awarded $5 million to 17 school districts in an effort to upgrade engines and reduce diesel emissions on an estimated 4,000 school buses nationwide. EPA officials predict more fuel-efficient technologies will remove as much as 200,000 pounds of diesel-produced smog from the air over the next 10 years.

“By retrofitting these buses, we bring tomorrow’s technology to today’s children,” said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt at a June 14 event in Ann Arbor, Mich., during which the agency awarded $165,357 to two Michigan school districts. “We’ll cut harmful emissions from these buses by 20 to 50 percent, and that means that kids and parents alike can breathe a little easier.”

The EPA granted $95,357 to Ann Arbor Public Schools to retrofit 110 buses and to provide a two-year supply of biodiesel fuel for 18 buses belonging to the neighboring Manchester Community Schools. A $70,000 grant went to the Okemos Public Schools and six neighboring districts for retrofitting 40 to 50 buses, according to an agency statement.

The buses will be equipped with diesel oxidation catalysts that use a chemical process to break down pollutants in the exhaust stream into less harmful components. Sold for from $600 to $2,000 apiece, the catalysts can be installed on any new or used bus and run on regular diesel fuel, EPA officials said. The devices take between one and three hours to install and can be selected from a pre-approved list provided by the EPA. The catalysts then are purchased through school systems’ normal competitive-bidding processes.

Biodiesel is a domestically produced renewable fuel that can be made from vegetable oil or animal fat. Unlike regular diesel fuel, it is biodegradable and reduces air pollutants such as particulate matter, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and air toxics, the agency said.

The Clean School Bus program already is providing a healthier commute for students in one Arizona school district.

Last year, officials at the 30,000-student Paradise Valley Unified School District received $300,000 to retrofit 20 buses with particulate-matter filters and fuel 114 buses with ultra-low sulfur diesel, another low-emission fuel meant to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals pumped into the air.

According to district transportation manger Jeff Cook, school officials have reported “a noticeable decline” in harmful emissions since launching the retrofitting and clean-fuel initiatives.

Although the district was able to outfit only a small portion of its 175-vehicle fleet with the catalysts, he said, the low-sulfur fuel has proven effective at powering the district’s school buses and cutting down on unnecessary pollutants.

That’s good news for Arizonans, he added, where wind-swept deserts and a dry, dusty climate are a natural recipe for poor air quality.

“We’re very happy with the way the program has gone so far,” Cook said. With a year left on its grant, the district already has used up all the money allotted to retrofit its school buses. The leftover funds, he said, will be used to purchase more low-sulfur fuel, which has to be trucked in from California.

According to statistics on the EPA web site, 24 million U.S. schoolchildren spend an hour and half each weekday on a school bus. All told, the nation’s school buses travel more than 4 billion miles each year–roughly equivalent to 20 trips to the sun and back.

Over the course of the last three years, several nonprofit and independent research groups have conducted studies linking student health problems to smog and other diesel-generated emissions. According to the American Lung Association, scientists have tied school bus pollutants to everything from increased asthma attacks and missed school days to hospitalizations, chronic bronchitis, heart disease, cancer, and even premature death.

In February 2002, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which runs an online campaign called CleanSchoolBus.org, released a report card on diesel emissions from the nation’s school buses, stating that buses in all 50 states released toxins that could be detrimental to students’ health.

At that time, the report stated, there were very few programs in place to monitor the amount of pollution released from school buses or that required schools to explore low-emission alternatives to traditional diesel fuels.

Robin Leeds, an industry specialist for the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), said the overall lack of public awareness was one of the reasons her organization chose to get involved.

In 2003, the association received a $500,000 grant from the Clean School Bus program to provide member school districts with clean-air and retrofitting technologies.

The goal, she said, is to provide the “safest ride possible.”

Industry representatives also are pitching in to make school bus travel safer–and cleaner–for the nation’s students.

On June 3, Caterpillar Inc., a worldwide manufacturer of diesel engines, awarded $250,000 to retrofit more that 240 buses in Arizona, Illinois, and Texas with its own brand of emissions reduction catalyst.

Caterpillar Group President Stu Levenick made the announcement as part of the National Retrofit Conference in Washington, D.C. Grant recipients included District 150 in Peoria, Ill.; four school districts in Ellis County, Texas, south of Dallas; and the Tucson, Ariz., Unified School District.

Despite the risks of pollution, NSTA’s Leeds said parents and teachers shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that school bus travel is still the safest way for students to get to and from school.

“Taking kids off the bus is not the answer,” she said, adding that whether children travel in buses, in cars with their parents, or walk to school, they still breathe the same air.

In fact, Leeds said, school buses account for a very small portion of the overall problem. The trouble, she said, is that school buses “operate in an environment highly populated by children,” which makes them an easy and likely target for reform.

Links:

American Lung Association
http://www.lungusa.org

Caterpiller Inc.
http://www.cat.com

Clean School Bus USA
http://www.epa.gov/cleanschoolbus

Environmental Protection Agency
http://www.epa.org

National School Transportation Association
http://www.schooltrans.com

Union of Concerned Scientists
http://www.ucsusa.org

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Hybrid school-bus engines making a charge

Mounting health concerns coupled with soaring prices at the gas pump this summer have several school bus and engine manufacturers exploring an emerging technology already gaining traction in the consumer automotive market: hybrid engines.

Experts say the half diesel, half battery-powered machines would work similar to the environmentally friendly engines now being offered in the Toyota Prius or Honda Civic. The goal is to reduce overall fuel consumption and therefore limit the outflow of harmful emissions pumped into the air.

Bill Paul, editor of the industry publication School Transportation News, said school districts around the country already have begun testing variations of the technology through grants and corporate research projects.

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    Headquartered in San Diego, ISE Corp., a manufacturer of fuel-efficient technologies and drive systems for public transit, is in talks with The Education Foundation of Harris, Texas, and the state’s Adopt-A-School Bus Program–an extension of the EPA’s Clean School Bus USA initiative–to demonstrate 10 hybrid diesel-electric, ultra-low sulfur diesel school buses in the Houston area. The deal is still waiting for final approval.

    In an eMail message to eSchool News, Paul wrote that the school bus engine “would work similar to most hybrid cars, in that applying the brake would activate an integrated motor alternator, an electrical device that doubles as a motor and generator. When the vehicle is stopping, braking force is applied to the alternator that allows the vehicle’s momentum [to] create an energy current and send it to a battery pack. The stored energy also works in reverse, sent to the axle when the vehicle needs to accelerate.”

    According to ISE, this “mild-hybrid” drive system, which is a less expensive variant of a full-hybrid system used in transit and large truck fleets for decades, not only reduces brake pad wear, but also reduces fuel consumption.

    Energy consulting firm Advanced Energy is pursuing a similar project in North Carolina. The company says it hopes the engines will improve the overall efficiency of energy use, making power sources cleaner and easier to control, while letting school bus operators switch between battery and diesel fuel power to reduce smog-causing emissions.

    Schools also have begun to experiment with the concept of full-electric school buses, charged on batteries and natural-gas engines, which reportedly emit 10 times less soot and 40 percent less smog-producing pollutants than their commercial diesel counterparts, according to a 2002 journal article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. But a lack of available fueling and power sources means those technologies are expensive. The alternatives also have run into problems when it comes to generating enough horsepower to drive the larger buses. So far, there are no hybrid school bus engines available for schools to buy. Chuck Hanlon of engine manufacturer Cummins Inc. says that’s because the technology remains largely cost-prohibitive for most school bus fleets. According to Hanlon, hybrid engines sell for 50 percent more than the cost of a standard EPA-approved, low-emission diesel device.

    In one of the largest hybrid/public transit experiments in the country, Cummins is currently working with New York City to install the breakthrough engines in several of its metro transit buses, Hanlon said, though specifics were not available.

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    ED applies data to teacher development

    Federal education officials are ratcheting up the stakes for teacher professional development. In a pilot project that began last fall, officials hope to learn whether software can be used to track and analyze the effectiveness of a district’s staff training programs in much the same way it can be used to gauge the effectiveness of classroom instruction.

    The three-year project, made possible through a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), aims to create a decision support tool that will enable educators to track and manage professional development, report on data from various sources, and create alternative scenarios designed to enhance the practice of teaching in schools. The project enters its critical test phase in the coming months. Sixty test and control schools in 14 districts across eight states have signed on to participate in the project, which is headed by Co-nect, a Massachusetts-based for-profit provider of professional development services to schools, in partnership with TetraData Corp., a builder of K-12 data warehousing solutions headquartered in South Carolina. If the tool works, program developers say they eventually plan to offer it to schools nationwide.

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    After the inception of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, school leaders were forced to accept a much greater reliance on data to improve student achievement. Just three years later, data warehouses and web-based assessment tools intended to track everything from students’ reading scores to simple demographics abound in schools from coast to coast. Now, with the national focus shifting toward teacher quality and training, developers of the technology contend these systems are as effective at highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of a school district’s teachers as they are with students.

    Just as data can be used to individualize learning for the student, they also can be leveraged to customize training for the teacher, said Bruce Goldberg, chief education officer at Co-nect. But what works in one school district isn’t necessarily going to work for another, he added. Different circumstances often necessitate different means of training.

    If the tool now under development does its job, it will enable school leaders to see which training methods elicit favorable results in specific environments–from cash-strapped urban districts to wealthy suburban communities–thus helping schools achieve the best return on investment for their in-service training programs.

    The web-based system, to be built atop schools’ existing data infrastructures and facilitated by TetraData’s suite of EASE-e data mining and reporting tools, will group data together from multiple sources, so that decisions about professional development and training can be matched with the specific needs of individual teachers, the project’s partners said.

    The idea is to pull all of the information schools already are collecting on in-service training programs and provide a method for administrators to extract and analyze these data in meaningful ways.

    Co-nect will work with the schools to develop new metrics and evaluate the effectiveness of select training and development programs. Kenneth Tam, director of business systems for Co-nect, said the company is acting as “the general contractor” for the project, helping to facilitate the evaluations while coordinating the various contributions of grant participants.

    When the project is finished, Co-nect’s Goldberg hopes schools across the country will have an opportunity to see which professional development approaches worked in certain scenarios and which did not. Administrators, he said, then can use that evidence to decide whether it’s worth pursuing certain staff development initiatives on their own.

    “Being highly qualified is no longer an option,” Goldberg said–it’s a necessity. Schools need to recruit, retain, and keep training the highest-quality educators to stay competitive. To do that, he said, school leaders must have a handle on which professional development approaches are most effective under which circumstances.

    During the project, participating educators will be asked to complete an annual school climate survey that assesses their perception on topics such as collaboration, instruction, leadership, and data use. University researchers then will compare the results to determine how much of an impact these professional development programs have had on educators’ understanding of these critical issues.

    School leaders in the experimental groups will have access to TetraData’s analysis tool to help them determine which training programs were most effective under which circumstances, so they can target their efforts and resources accordingly.

    When asked why Co-nect chose to perform climate surveys instead of basing its data on more explicit assessments such as teachers’ skill exams or student test scores, Tam said researchers sided with the metric most likely to elicit change in the shortest period of time.

    Though project directors anticipate the data tool will lead to better teaching and, eventually, higher student test scores, Tam said these improvements will be gradual–meaning they aren’t likely to occur before money and time runs out on the pilot project next year. However, with the climate surveys, he said, results will be evident almost immediately.

    Elmer McPherson, superintendent of Decatur Public School District #61 in Decatur, Ill., called the pilot program “a natural fit” for his 10,000-student district.

    With the creation of its own professional development institute for educators, McPherson said, Decatur is looking “to control professional development opportunities to meet the needs of its students and teachers.”

    Educators in all 23 schools now participate in the New American Schools program, a video workshop on comprehensive school reform. Several teachers also are enrolled in classroom training exercises facilitated by outside curriculum strategists. In some cases, McPherson said, education experts are hired to perform live, in-class demonstrations of new educational approaches and to evaluate the implementation of new learning models.

    In Decatur, six schools are signed up to participate in the Co-nect pilot program. If the data tool works, McPherson said, he’ll look to expand the service to all 23 schools at some point.

    “We’re really proud of the fact that we’re holding ourselves accountable before we’re mandated to do it,” he said. “The teachers have been really receptive.”

    McPherson said he isn’t concerned with the potential for a backlash within the community if analysis of the data suggests his district has been spending money on training programs that don’t work.

    “We’re looking to work smarter, not harder,” he said. If the data tool finds the district’s training methods have been unsuccessful to date, then “we will try something new,” he added. “This isn’t a matter of pride.”

    On the flip side, he said, the pilot project might help district leaders find a solution that works better. Program architects say they eventually hope to create a diverse catalog of professional development solutions aligned with state standards and proven to work under various circumstances.

    Goldberg acknowledged that schools using the tool might be forced to face the reality that their training programs aren’t up to par. But he compared NCLB’s reliance on data to steer education with the success of evidence-based research approaches in the medical field. Teachers and administrators are a lot like doctors, he said. Instead of prescribing medicine to cure ailments, educators prescribe learning to combat ignorance. But a cure is only effective if the dosage is right. That’s why professional development programs need to account for educators’ individual needs and circumstances, he added.

    Collaborating with Co-nect are four other school improvement organizations: Atlas Communities, Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, Modern Red Schoolhouse Institute, and Success For All.

    Along with Co-nect, these groups serve more than 2,000 schools nationwide. Participants in the pilot project hail from districts and schools in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, New York, South Carolina, and North Carolina, Tam said.

    Researchers from the University of Michigan and the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis will be involved in the project’s evaluation.

    “We know high-quality teaching make the biggest difference in improving student performance,” said Brian Rowan, a professor with the Educational Studies Program at the University of Michigan. “What we don’t know is how to routinely target professional development so that it meets the needs of teachers and students. That’s what this grant will allow Co-nect and the consortium to explore, understand, and act upon.”

    Within six months to a year, Goldberg said, organizers expect to have enough data to give a clearer picture of whether or not the tool is working. Depending on the results, he said, the group will consider ways to expand the program beyond the pilot.

    Links:

    Co-nect
    http://www.co-nect.net

    Project web site
    http://www.co-nect.net/consortium

    TetraData Corp.
    http://www.tetradata.com

    U.S. Department of Education
    http://www.ed.gov

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