In the beginning there were plans for a greenhouse.
Seven years and millions of dollars in donations later, the Whitefish School District got its greenhouse, in the form of the cutting-edge Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship.
The center opened officially with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday during Earth Day celebrations outside Whitefish High School.
A long time in the making, district Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said it’s great to see everything come together on the highly anticipated center.
“It’s super exciting to be able to open the doors on a project that’s been in play for many years,” she said. “This is the seventh year that the process has been moving forward, it’s my third year of being involved with it, so to see it actually come to life is really exciting and watching the students use it is really cool.”
The CSE’s origins go back to 2011, when students began talking with science teacher Eric Sawtelle and English teacher Nikki Reed about replacing a dilapidated greenhouse at the high school.
In 2014, FREEFLOW students started working with Richard Atkinson to raise funds for the greenhouse. As part of the second “Old Man Walking” campaign, if the students managed to hit their goal of $25,000 raised, Atkinson would match them to help finish the startup costs for the new greenhouse.
The students succeeded, raising $35,000 with another $35,000 coming from Atkinson, but as the project moved forward the scope widened.
By May 2016, the greenhouse was being called the Center for Applied Sustainability and had grown to an estimated $1.08 million facility that was more than just a greenhouse.
“We’ve expanded the concept from something that’s just for the high school to something that’s for the entire district,” Davis Schmidt said during a 2016 school board meeting. New ideas for the building included cutting-edge energy systems that would use geosolar, geothermal and solar energy.
By 2016, the project had expanded to $1.7 million, and by the following January the district had secured $2.1 million in funding for the project, now known as the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship.
Martel Construction was selected to build the center last March, and a final project budget of $2.7 million was approved in August.
While under construction, the CSE even won the Mountain West Leadership Award from the U.S. Green Building Council, which celebrates the innovative projects and people that are leading toward a more resilient, healthy and equitable future, according to a release from the school district.
Davis Schmidt said the project has been a focal point since she started in the district in 2015.
“One of my very first meetings when I got to Whitefish was sitting down with members of the Whitefish Community Foundation board and one of those members saying that they really wanted to see this project become something amazing, into a really cool, hands-on facility for our students,” Davis Schmidt said.
Curriculum Director Ryder Delaloye has played a key role for the center, as an advocate as well as a planner, coordinator and liaison with other businesses, securing partnerships between the center and projects like Buddy Ohm. Buddy Ohm is a set of sensors that will monitor the energy usage at the center and provide feedback on how to lower energy usage.
Delaloye noted how the opening of the center is part of a larger effort by many different parties.
“This is an incredible testament to all the work that so many people have put forth — community members, philanthropists, organizations, teachers, administrators, students, regional and national partners — it is exciting, and it’s this kind of experiential learning, this is what it’s all about,” he said.
As the project shifted from a greenhouse to the cutting-edge, net-zero center it is today, the scale of the design underwent a big shift as well.
The greenhouse moved from being the entire project to one part of a larger project, and the ways in which the center would be used grew larger between every school board meeting.
Davis Schmidt said questions concerning the center’s design were really questions about whether the building would be a food production facility or a classroom.
“We had to wrestle with that philosophically, and we came to the conclusion that we really wanted it to be an educational tool, like a living textbook,” she said. “It’s an instructional tool that creates great opportunity. Our elementary teachers often say they don’t have a place where they can have messy classroom experiences, and now they can bring their students over here and have those messy classroom experiences right here on their campus.”
The building features a 1,200 square-foot greenhouse attached to a two-story building with two 1,500 square-foot classrooms.
An underground climate battery will heat the inside of the building, along with geothermal processes. The climate battery is a system of metal coils that store thermal energy gathered by the building’s solar panels.
Much of what the students will do in the center will relate directly to sustainability practices, Delaloye said. Students will learn about the ways the center retains energy, such as through its triple-paned windows, follow that up with a hands-on lesson on sustainability.
It’s this experiential learning that will make the lessons in the CSE so effective, he said.
“When kids can experience these things, they’re going to be changed through that. I appreciate seeing learning that is inquiry based and experiential because they can build on that,” he said.
Plus, starting students with sustainable practices at a young age will have big benefits down the road, he notes.
“I think the biggest potential benefit is that if a child comes in at first grade, and they come back multiple times every year, they learn in an experiential ways and they’re going to be changed through this.” Delaloye said. “They’re going to live their life in a more sustainable way. They’re going to make democratic choices that safeguard the environment, that protect the integrity of the local economy base, and that ensure that the longterm resilience of the community is intact. That’s the kind of thing that we’re building.”
The entrepreneurship piece of the center is also incredibly important in today’s economy, Davis Schmidt said.
Students practice different parts of the design process during their lessons, conceptualizing an idea, pitching it, building it and presenting the finished product at the end.
“Knowing that 80 percent of workers are actually working for companies with 10 or less employees, so really our country has so many entrepreneurial adventures going on, and we need to find ways to help our students fit into that world long term,” Davis Schmidt said.
The center will also provide opportunities for community learning. Delaloye said the CSE plans to host workshops for adult education, teaching on subjects like canning and sustainable habits for daily living.
Down the road, he said the district also envisions hosting conferences and seminars for educators who want to follow the district’s lead on sustainability.
The district has also hired Taylor Wilmot as its Facilities and Grounds Coordinator to keep the building running and help facilitate engagement with students and community members.
A separate educational coordinator, Randy Hohf, is set to join the CSE in the fall to get students started with their sustainability education at the center.
Being a leader in the sustainability field has been a priority from the start, Davis Schmidt said.
“That’s absolutely one of our goals,” she said. “I think in everything we do, we want to set an example and model for the rest of the state and the rest of the country. We want to be the kind of educational facility that families want their children to attend.”
And through years of learning in the CSE, both by students and community members, Delaloye said the district can make a big impact in the realm of sustainability practice and awareness.
“We can form, through this process, an ethos of conservation, stewardship and sustainable practice,” Delaloye said. “And sustainability is not an ideology on any side. It is the coming together of good practice, it’s thinking about, ‘How do my choices impact future generations? Because if I consume all the resources now, what do my grandchildren have?’”