Green schools

| 23 Jun 2015 | 03:24

Finding space outside the walls

North Main Elementary, Monroe NY

Maybe it’s because for so long this school didn’t have walls. The 108-year-old building got an addition in the early seventies, when open space was in vogue, and only recently added partitions to separate the classrooms. But there’s a collaborative instinct here that’s allowed the school to find money, space, and labor that wasn’t in the budget, and with them to create a garden that feeds as well as teaches its students, an outdoor classroom in an overgrown courtyard, and a nature trail through the woods.

The garden has been around since before teaching gardens were having their moment. Eight years ago, the bishop of the church next door, Grace Episcopal Church, knocked on the door of North Main Elementary and asked how the church could support the school. Money, said Principal Matthew Kravatz.

The church found a grant for $5,000, and with it, Kravatz started the garden that was primarily intended to feed the students who live up and down the street. This school has the largest free and reduced lunch, and ESL population, in the district, and the majority of the most impoverished kids live on the same street as the school.

The hand painted sign on the garden gate reads “North Main Community Garden,” not school garden. Perhaps the most unusual thing about this garden, spearheaded and primarily used by the school, is that it’s not on school property. It’s in the churchyard next door.

In exchange for the use of the space – which the church had previously seen as a headache in need of TLC – the school plows the church’s driveway, takes care of the shrubs and fixes things like the cement steps. When a wooden retaining wall separating the up-slope school from the downslope church looked in danger of falling in, the school removed it with a backhoe that was already doing work on the property, and a student looking for an Eagle Scout project took on the task of building a new retaining wall.

With the seed money from the initial grant, the school secured the garden carefully, even laying mesh underneath the garden beds. But the gate is never locked. Teachers not only bring students out here nearly daily, to plant or prune or read or study worms, but they often do it on the spur of the moment. Like when the student counselor decided that a girl who was down in the dumps, instead of talk support, could use a trip to the garden. They sampled mint leaves, which the girl decided tasted like toothpaste. “It took her away from feeling diminished to feeling really positive,” said Veronica Kaleta, the counselor.

The garden produces tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, red and green peppers, basil, as well as the hot peppers and cilantro that the many Spanish speaking students are used to smelling and eating in their own kitchens.

All the food that comes out of the garden gets donated to Our Father’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen run by Sacred Heart Church. From there it ends up in the bellies of North Main students who need it.

After the initial grant dried up, Kravatz and his team found money elsewhere. This spring, it was a $500 grant from Exxon-Mobil that bought tomato and pepper seedlings, reinforcements in the form of more mesh wiring (their only animal visitor so far has been a skunk, which Kravatz trapped and released in the woods), stakes, shovels and gloves.

A recently retired master gardener has taken the garden on as his pet project. Jim Hall, the husband of a school employee, is experimenting with vertical growing on pallets — yet another way to maximize every square foot —and has amassed a five-gallon bucket full of seeds he got donated from big box stores.

A Girl Scout troop does the brunt of the summer upkeep, which is often the limiting factor with school gardens. Katie Oppelt, who teaches the gifted and talented program at North Main, can be be found out here with her own children in August, harvesting zucchini and weeding. The teachers are sometimes surprised to see Principal Kravatz, too, out here before school, with his shirt sleeves rolled up, weeding.

It’s Girl Scouts who are also spearheading another big project: turning an overgrown but pretty courtyard into an outdoor classroom, with murals where old windows have been bricked over, cushion seats, awning and blackboard. When Dirt visited, a garbage can and additional garbage bag full of weeds indicated clean-up was already underway.

Oppelt, whose fourth and fifth graders study circuitry, is pondering having her students build a birdhouse with some sort of solar-powered light-up effect, and wind chimes with the younger kids.

Rolling Hills Elementary, Vernon NJ

It has been a crazy morning, Principal Stewart Stumper said. One third grader broke up with another, creating a brouhaha. Broke up? Stumper, 60, shook his head. “We’re dealing with middle school issues in elementary school,” he said.

He points to his computer – the reason kids are growing up alarmingly fast. They have access to everything, despite parents’ best intentions at censoring the internet.

“The little guys in second and third grades, they have better cell phones than I have,” he said. “We need to settle down. We’re going nuts.”

It is an unintentional but apropos segue into what we’re here to talk about: the nature trail and sensory garden that are underway at Rolling Hills Elementary.

“If nothing else, when you’re outside the only thing you’re focused on is putting one foot in front of the other. It just clears the mind,” he said.

Stumper opened a cardboard box. Inside were neon orange blazes and sturdy ID cards – white ash, black birch, eastern red cedar – which he and Danny Osenni, the science supervisor for the Vernon Township School District, are planning to affix to trees on the half-mile path through the woods in back of the school. Stumper envisions eventually adding QR codes to the blazes, so that kids can use laptops or smartphones to bring up pictures of the spot in other seasons, or links about the history of the place.

The path, likely an old farm path, begins at the top of a freshly mowed hill overlooking the school. At its mouth, four picnic tables sit underneath the generous canopy of a white ash (Dirt is amateur at tree ID; we think it’s white ash.) This is an “outdoor classroom,” where teachers take classes to do activities like leaf rubbings – after first explaining that that right there is poison ivy. A bluebird hops from branch to branch.

In these 25 or so acres of fields and woods owned by the school district, a solar array will soon be installed to serve Rolling Hills Elementary and Lounsberry Hollow, the middle school on top of the hill, as part of a district-wide push toward energy efficiency.

Osenni and Stumper came of age together as long-haired, bearded science teachers. Osenni stayed on that path (and still wears a beard) while Stumper moved over to the administrative end (and shaved). From that vantage point he has seen teachers get more and more stressed as testing has come to dominate, and “any time you put pressure on teachers it transcends to pressure on kids,” he said.

“Starting to sunset,” you find yourself “going back to the old things that interest you,” like gardening and hiking, and getting kids outside to appreciate the beauty they don’t seem to realize surrounds them. “If you went 15 to 20 miles south they’d be dying for these campuses,” he said.

“We’re literally within a mile of the [Appalachian] Trail,” he said. He hopes the oversized orange blazes will lead kids to the white ones that mark the A.T., which most of his students have never hiked.

Nature is also finding its way into the school building. Osenni’s influence is visible in the tadpoles, scooped from a parent’s pond, that inhabit fish bowls and aquariums on classroom shelves. At the beginning of June, the butterflies had already been released.

Meanwhile, third grade teacher Nick Densak just secured a $4,000 grant from Loew’s to turn an overgrown cement area adjacent to the library into a “sensory garden,” cum raised beds, butterfly garden, walkway and split rail fence, and, eventually, a waterfall. A door and large windows connect the library to the future garden, and the library – slated for its own $70,000 renovation – will be painted with murals that accentuate the outdoors. The day Dirt visited, up-cycled animal sculptures by students sat atop the bookshelves, and neat piles of fresh lumber and bagged topsoil waited outside the library’s brick façade. The work was to begin that weekend.