CHICAGO (AP) -- Youngsters at Tarkington elementary started their first day of classes Tuesday at a school where flowering plants grow on the roof. It's one of the nation's small but growing number of environmentally friendly schools, a stand-out because it sits in a major city better known for towers of steel and concrete.
Supporters hope Tarkington elementary will bring the idea of environmentally friendly urban buildings into the mainstream.
In contrast to other Chicago buildings, Tarkington has a living, green roof planted atop the gymnasium. It's a garden of short, self-sustaining flowering plants that don't need much water and can withstand Chicago's weather, said project manager Julie Chamlin.
"It looks extraordinarily better than other schools," said 12-year-old Dulce Vega, a seventh-grader excited at the thought of having science classes on the roof.
If the young science students and other children are lucky, they might even see birds nesting there.
The insulation provided by the soil and vegetation will help keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Rainwater soaking into the soil will be piped to a nearby lagoon.
The school also is designed to use 30 percent less water than expected for a building of its size and get half of its electricity from renewable resources, and it has a reflective coating to reduce the amount of heat getting in.
Tarkington is one of about 110 schools in the United States that have been certified or are seeking "green" certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Proponents say Tarkington represents a huge leap forward because it is in Chicago and not in some small town or tree-hugging city on the more environmentally conscious West Coast.
"I think it mainstreams what is a very important idea that many people would have ignored just because it came out of the wrong market," said Rick Fedrizzi, the president and CEO of the Green Building Council.
Tarkington was specifically built to meet the council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines.
A much smaller "green" school, Prairie Crossing Charter School, opened last January in Grayslake north of Chicago. But that school's director, Linda Brazdil, said Tarkington sends a message that her school -- in a wooded area miles from the nearest high-rise or subway -- simply can't.
"If you can (build such a facility) in the middle of a city, then it says it's not just something you can do if you happen to be in the suburbs," she said.
Tarkington sits on Chicago's Southwest Side, in a neighborhood of bungalows, a large city park, mom-and-pop convenience stores and restaurants. Many shops display signs in Spanish and English.
Aside from savings on costs of water and energy, Fedrizzi said such schools are exciting for what they can do for students. Proponents believe the air quality in a "green" building is better than other schools, and that students won't be out sick as much and may perform better, he said.
In addition, the green roof will offer hands-on lessons on life cycles and plant life, said the school's principal, Vincent Iturralde.
"It's important for kids to be environmentally focused and start ingraining in them the kind of ways to save on energy, to make the best use of recycling," Iturralde said.
Parents are excited, too.
Deborah Voltz, who brought her 11-year-old son for his first day in sixth grade Tuesday, said she took a tour of the school earlier and learned about all of its features.
"Oh my, I was so very impressed," she said.
------ Associated Press writer Sarah Freeman contributed to this report.
On the Net:
U.S. Green Building Council: http://www.usgbc.org/