Once a month, a few fourth-graders fan out through Booker T. Washington Academy's intermediate building on Price Road, quietly checking empty classrooms and other locations for lights left on, doors not closed and computers left running.
The kids — they call themselves "the Energy Detectives" — fill out reports, putting down check marks for lights turned off and/or an "X" for unclosed doors. After completing their "secret audits," they leave behind little notes, either congratulating people for saving energy or urging them to think more about conservation.
"Things are improving. We're starting to get more check marks than X's," says Lamiah Campbell, 9, who is one of the detectives.
About 30 Fayette County public schools have similar energy-saving teams, which can include students, teachers, parents, and custodial and maintenance staffers. They're all dedicated to identifying and eliminating energy waste in their respective buildings.
School officials call the effort "E=USE²," which stands for Education Leads to Understanding, Sustainability, E²nergy and the Environment. Its basic idea is to meld students and curriculum into the schools' new sustainability program, which got under way last year with goals of saving energy, providing "greener" learning spaces and generally using resources more efficiently.
The school system now spends $7.5 million on heating and cooling each year. Electrical use alone amounts to 82 million kilowatt-hours, which pumps more than 61,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, according to district estimates.
District officials say that simply cutting electrical use by 10 percent would save $750,000 a year. They also hope that getting students involved will teach them to be more energy- and conservation-conscious on their own.
The fourth-graders who make up the Booker T. energy team have learned how to use a simple "Kill-A-Watt" meter to check how much electricity coffee makers, lamps and other appliances use. And they've learned that many devices must be unplugged when not in use because they keep drawing electricity — it's called a "phantom load" — even if switched off.
There's plenty of fun involved, too.
"The kids are so excited; they love it," said Tracie Dreyer-Hanes, library media specialist at Booker T. who also supervises the student detective team.
"They're constantly asking me, 'When is our next meeting?' Now, other people around the school are starting to catch on to what we're doing and wanting to join in."
Reducing energy costs is fast becoming serious business for Kentucky's public schools at a time when the economy is sagging and budgets are tight. A few districts, like Kenton County Public Schools in Northern Kentucky, have robust sustainability programs. Kenton County's program has saved more than $2 million in energy costs since 2006, says Chris Baker, the district's energy systems coordinator.
Fayette's program is just getting under way, but there's plenty of potential for savings, according to Scott Smith, the district's sustainability consultant. For example, Fayette's per-student energy costs are almost 12 percent higher than the state average for schools, officials say.
Recent energy audits show, for example, that many schools' energy use has averaged more than 100 KBTUs per square foot per year. The average for schools in the region is about 72 KBTUs per square foot per year, Smith says. A KBTU, or 1,000 British thermal units, is a measure of overall energy use, not just heating.
Smith's company is working now to determine why some Fayette schools' use is high.
"It might be that we have greater after-school use of our buildings, which would drive up KBTUs," he said. "It might be that we don't have thermal windows in some buildings or that we have some antiquated heating and cooling systems."
Once consultants understand the issues in each school they can plan to reduce costs.
Several Fayette schools, including Booker T. Washington, already are taking steps to do that. And Henry Clay High School and Rosa Parks Elementary School have been designated pilot schools to test conservation measures that could be applied districtwide. Both schools already have lowered their energy use.
Teacher Suzanna Weisenfeld, who coordinates conservation efforts at Rosa Parks, said savings there have come from such simple things as shutting down some lighting fixtures; turning off lights in areas not in use; adjusting controls so the heating system kicks on a little later in the morning and turning off computers a little earlier in the afternoon.
That's only a beginning, school officials say.
"Obviously, we want to save money," Rosa Parks principal Leslie Thomas said. "But teaching our students to be good, responsible community members is the right thing to do. It's not something we can do overnight. But if we don't start now, we're going to be that much further behind."