Situated in the lush Pacific Northwest region of the United States, New Day School’s Neohumanist Education philosophy has captured the hearts and minds of families since 1979. Many of the residents attracted to this corner of the United States appreciate the beauty of its rich natural world and understand the need to protect it. It is therefore not surprising that New Day School has been attracting many families and community alliances on its path toward sustainable development. The school has just completed its 40th year as a preschool/kindergarten in its current location in Portland, OR, USA. This article emerged from a conversation between Ruai Rekha Gregory, and a few of the New Day board members to discuss their recent solar energy project, their campus-wide energy improvement renovation as well as current challenges of managing childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From Vision to Implementation
Located in the southeast neighborhood of Portland, OR, New Day School has been an ever evolving, dynamic Neohumanist preschool. Didi Ananda Krisnapriya, New Day’s director since 2001, arrived with a vision to redefine the school’s Neohumanist pedagogy and expand its practical application of Neohumanist philosophy to all areas of the school’s environment. Her first steps focused in two areas: expanding New Day’s organic garden into a living garden classroom with organic food production and creating an aesthetically uplifting indoor and outdoor environment.
Didi began to increase the organic garden area and a fruit orchard was grown in and near the play yard. A full time and year-round permaculturist was brought on staff who also doubled as the school’s garden teacher. This initiative quickly grew into a hands-on, year-round garden curriculum for the children and designated garden spots for each class. New Day School’s garden curriculum currently also includes lessons on seasonal cycles, the growth and uses of medicinal herbs, apiculture, plant biology, worm composting, and many other lessons of organic gardening techniques and permaculture. In the classroom environment, the materials were gradually changed and replaced with furnishings and toys made with natural materials. Using the general practice of less is more, teachers were encouraged to keep their classrooms free from visually “noisy” walls, shelves and bulletin boards. Soft and warm colors were used to make the rooms feel inviting and warm. Teachers were also encouraged to also use natural items in the classroom for play. Along with traditional classroom materials, items such as rocks, acorns and chestnuts were encouraged for imaginative play and for manipulative lessons.
Soon after, in 2003, combining the fields of aesthetics and sustainability, a beautiful cob structure was built in the garden as part of a citywide alternative building initiative. This marked the first of many community and volunteer driven improvements to the New Day School campus which would help children and families see and experience earth friendly practices in action. One such project was the grant funded construction of four rainwater catchment systems (called rain gardens) which help with cleaning rainwater pollutants and sediment which recharge precious groundwater and protect local waterways from polluted storm water runoff. Another project included the construction of a large composting system which connected the student’s daily meals to the cycle of food waste and to further compliment the school’s vegan, garden-to-plate meal program.
In 2010, New Day School expanded its campus, and purchased the land and building next door. Again, reaching out to the local and school community, New Day School partnered with DePave, a local non-profit organization, who helped New Day School secure a grant to transform the newly purchased asphalt parking lot into green space. More than 150 volunteers removed 6000 square feet of asphalt in a single day! This allowed New Day School even more opportunity to grow along their “eco-journey” and the new gardens and land more than doubled the New Day School campus to just under one acre. By integrating native plants and removing invasive ones from the green space, the program then attained certification as an Audubon society nature habitat.
Path to Net Zero Energy: The energy improvement renovation
The school’s campus currently includes three buildings, two used for project activities and a third residential building that houses teachers and volunteers. The Kishalay building (the name Kishalay means a plant’s new, reddish leaf), is the original school building and contains two classrooms and small, school offices and teachers’ lounge. The third building, Mahavidya (meaning “vast knowledge”) houses a third classroom, a commercial vegan kitchen, conference rooms, a large meditation and yoga hall, and an Ananda Marga resource library.
Coinciding a time of much needed repairs and high maintenance and energy cots, there was a city wide public and government push to upgrade buildings (especially schools and public buildings) to new standards of seismic resilience. When it became clear that renovation was needed on two of the buildings, New Day School’s board made the decision to explore energy improvements as well, using this problem as another way to put the Neohumanist principles into practice. Maitri and Ole Ersson, owners of Kailash Ecovillage, a 2-acre sustainably focused community and co-housing project, provided inspiration and guidance toward the creation of a “net-zero” energy building. Spending over a year in the design process, what first appeared to be an impossible project soon became a doable transformation.
Four environmentally friendly construction companies were consulted, and Green Hammer was selected for its vision and alignment with neohumanistic values. The concept and commitment to “maximum utilization” was a key mutual goal between New Day’s Board and their design-build team and steered many decisions including the decision to deconstruct and rebuild reusing and repurposing materials in the newly constructed Kishalay building project. New Day School (NDS) began its major renovation project in June of 2018, on two of its three buildings with the dual purpose of becoming safer and more resilient during seismic events, as well as capitalizing on renewable and sustainable upgrades.
The end result of renovations to both buildings included: a seismic retrofit, less construction waste to landfills, the use of sustainably harvested and non-toxic construction materials, improved energy efficiency, low-flow fixtures to save water and improved natural lighting. Further renovation of the Kishalay building included its super-insulated, airtight building envelope, and high-performance mechanical systems promoting optimal indoor air quality. The solar installation was the last step, just recently completed in March. New Day reached out to the support of the local Ananda Marga and school communities and local private and government agencies to fundraise over $135,000 for a photovoltaic and battery system. The system creates enough energy to offset the electricity needs of both buildings annually making New Day’s Kishalay building the first Net Zero preschool in Oregon. Along with the photovoltaic project funds, New Day School was also awarded an additional $36,000 education award to create an original solar energy curriculum, developed for the preschool aged classroom, which will be available and promoted by a partnering project Clean Energy: Bright Futures on their national educational platforms. The timing of the entire project was remarkable, in that everything was completed and in place just prior to the COVID-19 shutdown in early March.
Lessons Learned During the Pandemic
The school was shut down from March until July when the program was able to open under clear and helpful state guidelines. The school is currently operating as an Emergency Child Care Center which prioritizes child care for children of essential workers.
In preparing to reopen, first needed surveys were sent out, along with contracts for parents to sign, which included clear expectations. Attention to communication played a key role in the successful reopening, allowing questions and feedback from the parents, as they have been very appreciative of the school’s transparency and clear communication. Even parents who chose to leave the school have kept in touch and given excellent feedback on the school’s Covid-19 response.
New rules and regulations in Covid-19 guidelines created a need to look at the program and curriculum as a whole. The entire process has provided the administration and staff with fresh eyes, as every aspect of the environment, schedule and curriculum is redefined and configured. Didi requested her staff to think collectively, positivity and with flexibility. Many policies and procedures needed to change upon reopening. For example, the school now closes one hour early and children have stricter pick up and drop off times in order to provide sufficient time for staff to do deep sanitizing in classrooms. For health and safety, classes have been kept small, even after the state expanded guidelines to allow larger groups. Parents have been understanding and supportive of these decisions as well as community agreements which restrict high risk travel or gatherings. With a huge focus on sanitation and risks of Coronavirus exposure, a few staff members chose to resign. Those who remained are completely committed and supportive of one another and the children whom they serve. The current staff are experienced and cohesive and include two teachers who’ve been employed at New Day School for over a decade.
Long term sustainability during the Covid-19 pandemic is a concern, with the current lower enrollment and high sanitation demands, so the administrative staff is closely observing and planning for the future. However, as New Day School has always thrived and followed the NHE model, inspiration and vision, there is no doubt the program will continue as a dynamic and progressive beacon of light.
Didi credits the success of the school to a diverse and committed team who have dedicated themselves to the vision and growth of the project. Working together for the past 15+ years, she directed the project under a practice of collective leadership, collecting the ideas and diverse opinions of her team which also includes a system of collective decision making with her administrative team and three others. Didi believes that diverse thoughts generate new and expanded options for the greater good of the school and bring it closer to its goals of expansive education, awakened consciousness and loving service to all beings. The current administrative team, Didi Ananda Krsnapriya, Atandradidi and Didi Jayagiita, who have worked closely together with three other important team members who have committed countless hours in shaping the school’s Neohumanist culture and vision are two longtime board members, Maitri Errson and Ray Wood, and lastly Krishna, who’s significant contributions towards curriculum and vision have helped to shape the school. Without the dedication of all the above-mentioned people this project would never be what it is today.