Fairhill: Local Schools Going Green

May 12, 2010

By Becca Lane and Danielle Harvey

Though it has yet to become a full citywide initiative, the push to go green has spread throughout the Philadelphia School District, with grants being given for the construction of new, green schools and incentives being offered for already existing schools that make an effort to become more environmentally friendly.

Julia de Burgos Gardening Project

Julia de Burgos Teacher and Gardening Project Founder, Christina Saxton, Guides the Beginner Student Gardeners

One such school that has experienced the green initiative is Julia de Burgos Middle School, which lies in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia.  Though the school has been in existence for quite sometime, it moved to Fourth Street and Lehigh Avenue seven years ago, reusing what was once Edison High School.  The design of the building was part of the Philadelphia School District’s “Children Achieving Agenda”, which combines learning with community involvement.  “It’s a green building,” explained former Julia de Burgos teacher Christina Saxton, “so it was made for solar heat, and you can see that with all the windows in the building.”  Also, the lights in the building, including the ones in the bathrooms, all have motion detectors so they turn off when nobody is in the room.

The Commodore John Barry Elementary School in West Philadelphia is another prime example of a school being built using sustainability strategies.  Natural light from the many windows of the building keep the rooms well-lit, and the building has a rainwater harvesting system that keeps the school in line with the City of Philadelphia’s storm water regulations while also reducing the school’s overall water use.  This project was part of a larger, statewide green effort by Governor Ed Rendell.  Over $200,000 in grant money was allocated to several Pennsylvania schools, including Commodore John Barry, in order to move the state’s schools toward better sustainability.  The Wisconsin Building Green Alliance determined that green buildings can reduce energy consumption by 20 percent to 30 percent and lower landscape expenditures by $3,000 to $4,000 per acre per year.  Measures to become sustainable also save the taxpayers money, as the operational cost of these schools are substantially lowered by the school becoming green.

The Garden Plot at the Julia de Burgos Middle School Before Planting Began

The Garden Plot at the Julia de Burgos Middle School Before Planting Began

“It’s not a district-wide initiative,” says Jennie Wu, Deputy of Strategic Planning and Implementation for the Philadelphia School District, when discussing the effort to add sustainability in Philadelphia’s schools, “It’s more project-by-project depending on school sites and any sort of partnerships or relationships they may have with external groups or organizations.”

Programs focusing on the environment have also gained popularity in Philadelphia schools, with teachers like those in Julia de Burgos taking the initiative to educate themselves on green issues in an effort to better educate their students. At Julia de Burgos, Christina Saxton and a few of the teachers came together to create the Nature Club, which is an interactive after-school group that allows the students to get hands-on gardening experience by planting in the small garden by the playground.  “They absolutely love it,” says Julia de Burgos teacher Erin Kelly, one of the teachers involved in the Nature Club, “Anything that allows them to do hands-on work, they just gravitate towards it.”

The entire Nature Club program, along with the school garden, was conceptualized after the teachers went to a program called Green City Teachers.  The program, which is a product of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), is a free training course that gives Philadelphia teachers the skills needed to integrate horticulture and environmental information into their classrooms.  The teachers participated in the courses, and as a result, received a $1,000 grant from the PHS, which went toward the start-up costs of the garden.

Julia de Burgos Nature Club

Julia de Burgos Nature Club Students Learning About Silk Worms

This green effort has been almost entirely funded by private sources like PHS and a number of helpful volunteers.  Unfortunately, despite a great deal of focus being placed on making the schools green, little-to-no extra money is available for the Philadelphia School District to broaden its goals.  In the City of Philadelphia’s 2009 Operating Budget, the Philadelphia School District received a slight increase in funds, with their budget widening from $37,000,000 to $38,490,000.  According to Jennie Wu from the Office of the Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, the school district did not receive as much funding as Governor Rendell had initially talked about giving them.  Extra funding could have been used to aid projects like the Julia De Burgos garden, or to widen the efforts to make schools sustainable–which, as it was previously mentioned, would gradually save the taxpayers money.

But for the kids at Julia de Burgos Middle School, where the money comes from is the last topic on their minds as they pick up their shovels to beautify their playground garden.  They are all eager to learn about their environment and are quick to talk about their favorite plants and activities.  “I liked digging the holes and putting in the plants,” says student Marinellys Rodriguez enthusiastically when asked about her gardening experience.  With awareness for the environment beginning at such a young age, one would have to think that the future of the sustainability movement in both our schools and in our neighborhoods is bright.

The Julia de Burgos Gardening Project Video and Audio Slideshow

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