Imagine a middle school in Albany where teachers can offer classes a change of scenery, and especially a change that will bolster seriously valuable contact with nature. And maybe where a greenhouse, with space for visiting classes to work, is warm enough in January to nurture slow growth of leafy greens. And a fruit tree orchard and bird, mammal and insect habitat that transforms science lessons into close-up encounters.
With conviction that doing and touching and tasting and experiencing can change academic lives for the better, the Vegetable Project proposes to development of these and other schoolyard amenities as part of an outdoor classroom at Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School in Albany. The initiative would fill in unused lawn around the garden that Vegetable Project volunteers have engaged students in over the past 10 years. Landscape architects with Stantec, a national planning and design firm with an office in Albany, have created conceptual drawings to illustrate possibilities for approximately an acre of schoolyard.
Of course, we have been working toward this point for some time. We purchased and assembled seating that can swing back and forth between benches with backs and benches with tabletops. Along with picnic tables that incoming eighth graders built many summers ago, we offer seating for about 30 students. We have started planting apple trees. We have begun exploring sizes and shapes and configurations of greenhouses. We have had positive conversations with prospective financial supporters.
We envision holding classes outdoors occasionally – and classes for all subjects, regardless of connection to the garden – becoming in time an irresistible option for Myers teachers. In addition to a shaded sitting area, a science laboratory greenhouse, vegetable garden beds and fruit trees, outdoor classroom amenities would likely include handicapped accessibility, food preparation facilities, native plants and small-group working spaces.
Completing this vision, of course, will take financial resources and help from all the friends in the community that we can find. Then, making the physical space into an integral part of the school’s educational offering will require marshaling resources to support the school staff. Developing appropriate plans for using the outdoor space and getting comfortable with bringing energetic 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds into a less structured settings will challenge experienced professionals. Building the kind of success that we hope will serve as a model at other Albany schools will also take planning for the cost daily and long-term maintenance of the facility.
Here are a couple, among many more, specific tasks and challenges. Also, please know that we have collected all sorts of related reading material — about what others have done, research that informs our thinking and development of schoolyard wildlife habitat.
Shaded sitting area
The notion of an outdoor classroom started with a conversation about building a place where classes could sit in the shade. Maybe that means a park-like pavilion with some picnic tables. Or maybe it could be something a bit more distinctive. Either way, we are in the market for ideas. See something in your travels that might be a model? Please photograph it and send it to us a[email protected]. See something in a magazine or online that you can share? Have an idea that you can sketch?
Building code requirements
We must bring electricity from the school building to any greenhouse that we build to provide a hard-wired fire alarm. We hope at the same time to bring water from the building to a more central location, for watering our garden and to create modest food prep capabilities. School district facilities folks estimate that an electrical conduit alone could cost $20,000. It appears that we need serious help with this from a licensed professional engineer or architect. We will need to organize our plan into a building permit application to the state Education Department. Know someone who might lend a hand?
Drumming up interest
We welcome opportunities to talk with folks who might take an interest in this project. Would you consider hosting a gathering at your home? Or perhaps know someone who would? Know an organization that might welcome a presentation and conversation? If so, please get in touch.
The space that we use was wide open when we started in 2009, but now is growing rather shaggy. It’s a pretty good example of ecological succession that students learn about in living environment classes. This raises an important question, however, about the extent to which we should leave nature to takes its course or when we should intervene. We would welcome guidance in taking stock of what is growing, whether we are passively encouraging invasive species to do damage and what our options are. For example, should we allow sumac trees to grow and to spread? And the invasive phragmite, the aquatic-looking plant on the western edge of our site? Maybe there is a class project here.
Building resources for project
Here is a rough estimate of costs for the full project that we envision: