Fortes Elementary School Plans to Create an Outdoor Classroom with New Community Garden

A $5,000 grant from Lowe’s and an additional grant for winning an outdoor design contest will fund the project

Children in Jessica Marchand’s kindergarten and Megan Durrigan’s first grade classes planted strawberries in the school’s garden last fall.

Children in Jessica Marchand’s kindergarten and Megan Durrigan’s first grade classes planted strawberries in the school’s garden last fall.

While the forecast may call for temperatures in the low 40s for the first day of spring, plans are well underway for the warmer days ahead at Fortes Elementary School.

The school has won a $5,000 Lowe’s Toolbox grant to create a garden that teachers hope will serve as an outdoor learning laboratory.

The school is participating in a garden curriculum integration project in collaboration with the Providence Public School District, Green Circle Design and the City of Providence’s Healthy Communities Office. The garden coordinates with Fortes’ designation as a pilot location for the district’s K-1 garden-based Next Generation Science Standards curriculum that is designed to expose students to more hands-on science education. Teachers began planning for the new curriculum last summer.

According to the grant application, prepared by kindergarten teacher Jessica Marchand and first-grade teacher Megan Goodinson Durrigan, “School gardens connect students to local food systems and help students to form lifelong eating habits. Parents, teachers and administrators agree that school gardens have the potential to foster student learning across a wide range of academic disciplines.”

“Students can’t wait to get out,” said Marchand. Gardens, she added, “allow children to see where things come from. They will get to see flowers produce fruits and vegetables rather than taking home seeds planted in a cup. It also exposes students to a green area that a lot of them don’t have in the city.”

Durrigan added that the children planted strawberries in the fall and are hoping to see some fruit growing this spring.

The current garden, which measures 50’ x 60’ is in an ideal location with a mature flowering tree, but was built 16 years ago and doesn’t meet the current needs of the school. The grant will allow teachers and volunteers to overhaul the garden and turn it into an outdoor classroom that will include new, raised beds that are safer for younger students; a butterfly garden of perennials and small native shrubs, including blueberries, for students to observe local ecosystems; bilingual signage inside and outside the garden to encourage community engagement and awareness in a heavily Spanish-speaking neighborhood; and whiteboards and tables to help the garden function as a classroom.

A representative from Lowe’s is scheduled to meet with the teachers this week to help develop plans for the garden. The harsh winter has made scheduling difficult, but teachers are hopeful that warmer weather will arrive soon so the beds can be built and planting can begin.

In addition, Fortes won the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association’s Dream Outdoors Contest. The designs were displayed and judged at the Rhode Island Flower & Garden Show in late February.

The design was presented by Shana Kennedy, Full Service Community Schools Coordinator at the YMCA, with input from students at the adjacent Lima Elementary School. Fortes will receive an additional $500 from the Rhode Island Horticulture Society, free seeds from the URI Outreach Center, a hydroponics classroom presentation from Acopia and design training from Down City Design.

From left, Jahnae Starks (5th grade), Dileana Velez (4th grade), and Jason Alonzo (4th grade) of Leviton with the winning garden design they helped to create.

From left, Jahnae Starks (5th grade), Dileana Velez (4th grade), and Jason Alonzo (4th grade) of Leviton with the winning garden design they helped to create.

The design includes plans for hands-on visual learning elements to the garden such as clear planters so students can see all parts of growing plants, a rain gauge, pinwheels, thermometer, solar-powered gizmos that will show students how different weather elements impact plants, and a worm bin to teach students how soil is naturally fertilized.

It was the realistic, kid-friendly design that Kennedy believes helped to win the contest. “This is hands-on and non-traditional, which is quite rare for children now. Having something like this at your school that you can use every day and take care of is special.”

Marchand, Durrigan and Kennedy expect to round up many volunteers to help with the preparation and planting. Gardening experts are coming forward to assist; Ruth Harmon, a teacher assistant at the school, has a master’s degree in agriculture.

The garden is expected to become a true community resource used by the school and the YMCA’s afterschool program, summer learning program, neighboring schools and adult education classes.

During the summer, the garden will be maintained by children attending summer programs at Fortes and the YMCA.

Advertisements