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Local Students Lead the Green Movement

Dispatches from three Carroll Gardens schools

Take one look at the digitally rendered drawings of the proposed green roof for PS 58,  and you'll be seeing veritable visions of sugar plums: from grassy lawns to vegetable beds, from native plantings to greenhouses, the project conjures visions of happy students learning hands-on in the most distinctive of classrooms.

While the green roof project makes progress on 1st Place and Smith Street, nearby, students at and are busy at work expanding their own green initiatives. (And don't forget about the at the New Horizons School on Hoyt Street.)

Though it may come as no surprise to many in this locavore-minded neighborhood, Carroll Gardens students are cultivating the cutting edge of the farm to school movement.

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Parent David Briggs became involved in PS 58's project to transform the school's 30,000 square foot roof into a "living classroom" in 2009, after his architecture firm completed a new library for the school.

"Parents started talking," he explained. "The impetus being a general interest to bring ecology back into the environment and create a 'green belt' in the community – a chain of sustainably designed green spaces."

The green roof would provide students with hands-on learning opportunities like growing and harvesting food that would wind up on their plates in the school's cafeteria, and researching and planting native flora. The project also aims to help combat childhood obesity and serve as a storm water management tool.

Science teachers Diana Marsh and Keith Wynne, already champions of various green initiatives in the school, jumped on board and hosted meetings for fellow teachers to gauge their interest and dream up a design, which Mr. Briggs' firm, Loci Architecture, has translated into a striking Powerpoint presentation.

While impressive in scope, the project has yet to get off the ground. Green roof construction is notoriously expensive, and the school lacks needed seed money.

Once funds are raised, the school must go through the School Construction Authority (SCA) to hire approved engineers. Luckily, Mr. Briggs is now an approved architect through the SCA.

The school's Garden Committee, made up of parents and teachers, is working to find funding while also seeking the support of Councilmember Brad Lander and other potential backers. The green roof will most likely develop in stages.

"We may need to start small, first by developing a smaller 5,000 square feet section, and then using that to build momentum and interest in expanding the project," Briggs said.

In the meantime, Ms. Marsh and Mr. Wynne are busy in their various efforts to meet the demand for environmentally sensitive lessons. Mr. Wynne will lead students in planting out garden boxes with native plants in the spring, after fifth graders research what plants are indigenous to New York City.

According to Ms. Marsh, the school's innovative environmental education efforts are a result of student interest.

"All these projects have stemmed from the children's interest," she said. "They are aware of what's going on, and so we're trying to do more."

Five years ago, a group of first graders started showing interest in global warming, and the school's annual Earth Day celebration was launched.

"The kids said we should have it in the schoolyard, so that community members could learn more about how to protect the environment," she said.

Since then, Ms. Marsh and Mr. Wynne have found ways to support their students' eco-mindedness, creating dynamic lessons and projects, including the Garden of Wonder, a school garden that grows food for the school cafeteria, Project Green Reach (in conjunction with Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the project integrates service learning and science), and Little Grassroots Blog, a forum founded by PS 58 students to discuss global warming and the environment.

"We want to produce kids that are scientifically literate and environmentally aware – and active in their communities," Wynne said.

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On a recent Wednesday, a few blocks west of The Carroll School, students at  prepared to take charge of their school's recycling and composting.

The "Golden Apple Club" is a group of twenty 6 - 8 graders. The club meets every Wednesday to collect and sort recyclables and incorporate their schools' combined food waste – up to 76 pounds a day – into tumbling compost bins behind the school.

The Golden Apple Club earned its name several years ago after the school won the Golden Apple Award from the NYC Department of Sanitation, which honors public and private NYC schools who demonstrate innovative recycling and waste prevention practices.

The Club works in conjunction with elementary students at the  an elementary school in the same building.

"We have a kind of symbiotic relationship," said Peter Hoppmann, teacher and leader of the Golden Apple Club. "When beds need to be planted, we do the hauling of the soil, and the little ones do the planting. The younger students bring the buckets of compost out back, and our team incorporates it with leaves from nearby yards."

"We do a big scramble when leaves are falling," said Armani Martinez, 13. "We grab rakes and just get as much as we can."

The schoolyard features a long elegant line of square raised beds, three Earth Machine compost bins, two large worm bins and a rainwater harvesting system.

Lexi Vargas is in 8th grade and likes the Golden Apple Club because it's fun.

"We go outside almost every day," she said.

8th grader Matthew Weir also likes being able to go outside.

"We go outside, collect trash and help the community," he said.

The club has picked up trash along Hicks street and the BQE: a recent collection along four blocks generated four trash bags full of litter.

Earik Middleton, 15, learned to compost on his uncle's farm in Nebraska, and is happy to be doing work like this in the city, too.

"It's good to let our hands get dirty," he said. "Instead of just using a pencil, we use our hands, a shovel, ice picks – it's just different."

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Down the street at similar green work has been underway since 2007. From decorative garden boxes and a full fledged raised bed garden, to revamping the school cafeteria and annual Harvest Days, PS 29 is a model for schools wanting to help their students connect the dots between the food they eat and where it comes from.

Three years ago, a visioning session led by the PTA and science teacher Tina Reres culminated in the consensus that a garden program was the perfect way to teach these concepts to the students. Through an Americorps position with Just Food, parent coordinator Emily Freund came on as full-time garden coordinator.

In 2008, PS 29 was accepted as one of 20 schools to participate in the Garden to Café pilot program, sponsored by the NYC Department of Education, SchoolFood and the NY State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Fruend says 2nd and 3rd graders spend the most time in the garden, through science classes.

"They have a "How do plants grow?" unit which teaches the kids about seed biology, photosynthesis, compost, weeding, watering, planting and harvesting," she said.

Pre-K and Kindergarten classes manage the smaller garden boxes around the school's perimeter, planting bulbs and other ornamental plants (right now, the boxes feature decorative kale plants and evergreen fronds).

Food grown in the schoolyard garden goes straight to the  cafeteria, one of the primary aims of the Garden to Café program.

"We try to grow different lettuces, so the kids learn that each variety has a different taste, and lots of basil because the kids love making pesto," said Freund.

"In the winter the kids learn how to read a packet, and learn what they can plant that will be harvestable by the time school lets out for the summer," she added.

Other crops grown include radishes, carrots, bok choi and sometimes less familiar greens like arugula.

In the summer, parent volunteers manage the garden; in exchange for watering and weeding they get to take home fresh produce. Incoming kindergartners can also sign up for beginning gardening in August with their parents as a way to ease the process of transitioning into school.

Another partnership PS 29 has undertaken this year is "Wellness in the Schools." The school's cafeteria staff is matched with a student from the Natural Gourmet Institute, who mentors the staff in purchasing less processed foods and using more fresh produce. The partnership is helping change PS 29's purchasing practices – for example, PS 29 now avoids purchasing pre-cooked frozen foods (which tend to be breaded items such as hamburgers and fries). They also have a meatless Monday, featuring a vegetarian meal.

When asked how PS 29 plans to expand their green programming, Freund answers, "We want to build a rainwater harvesting system and composting system – like Collaborative Studies'!"

Clearly, school's in the neighborhood are catching the green fever, and the students are taking the movement to new and inspiring levels.

Dylan Donahue December 21, 2010 at 04:08 PM
What a great idea! I live in the neighborhood and work for a green roofing company. Check us out at www.greensulate.com. This summer we did something similar at Regis High School. Great for the neighborhood!

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