By Rebecca Schmitz
A group of nearly 100 students gathered September 30 for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate Crozet Elementary’s new Rain Garden Habitat. Carol Heiser, a representative of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), who advised and consulted extensively on the project, presented Principal Gwedette Crummie with a certificate acknowledging the rain garden’s status as a Certified Schoolyard Habitat, saying, “You have created a beautiful habitat, and I am really proud.” After remarks from Crummie, Heiser, and second grade teacher Barbara Huneycutt, those attending the ceremony were treated to a scavenger hunt and tour of the garden. The chilly weather and gray skies did not dampen the children’s spirits or diminish their pride in this vibrant outdoor classroom, which they spent three years planning and building.
This patch of land, which was originally an overgrown biofill in the back of the school near the playground, has developed into a lush, lively habitat for a variety of native Virginia plants and animals. The garden is dotted with bird feeders, walking paths, benches, and even a sundial. A weather station, also funded as part of the project, perches on a nearby shed. No matter the time of year, plants are always blooming. Butterflies, toads, birds, caterpillars, and squirrels are just some of the animals that make their home here. Teachers of grades K-5 will use the garden to enhance their studies of plants and animals.
The idea for the garden was sparked by Ms. Crummie. “When I became principal of Crozet, I noticed our students’ love for nature, wildlife, and science. At that time, there was a challenge by the James River Green Building Council to encourage schools in Central Virginia to develop a project or program to increase environmental stewardship, strengthen community outreach, encourage creativity and complement curriculum development. It sounded like the perfect fit for Crozet.” She decided to challenge the second graders, whose science curriculum was heavily focused on plants and animals, to lead the way.
Guided by second grade teachers Mara Kuznar, Gay Baker, and Huneycutt, the students began brainstorming. Local architect Rob Winstead met with the children and discussed different ways they could use the school’s land. While the students originally wanted a pond as a habitat for frogs and toads, they eventually decided on a self-sustaining rain garden habitat that would be home to plants as well as animals. As part of their research, the second grade teachers visited the gardens at Monticello, which gave them “a peek at what the garden could be,” Huneycutt said. The teachers applied for and won a $2,590 grant from The Edgar and Eleanor Shannon Foundation for Excellence in Public Education, and the hard work began.
The next year’s crop of second-graders, who are now in third grade, were challenged by VDGIF to plant only native Virginia plants. With guidance from both Carol Heiser of the VDGIF and Dorothy Tompkins of Piedmont Master Gardeners, the students researched plants that would grow in the garden’s environment and voted on their favorites. Huneycutt noted that “It was nice to foster their research skills from the beginning of the year.” They began removing plants that would not thrive in the new garden, and according to Huneycutt, “weeded and weeded and weeded!”
The VDGIF donated 60 plants, and Piedmont Master Gardeners contributed plants as well. Parents and teachers volunteered to help, and the kids and adults spent a full week planting. “Digging the holes was pretty hard,” said third-grader Haden James. “But I liked picking out the plants and putting in the new ones. It was cool watching the plants grow!” The students used journals throughout the year to document their progress. They visited the garden and drew illustrations of plants, labeled them, and took notes on what they observed.
The garden continued to take shape. This year’s second graders created a walking path using stepping stones made from recyclable materials and decorated the stone with colorful painted handprints. The fifth grade class of 2014 donated a bench, also made with recyclable materials. Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology gave the school binocular sets, a bird feeder, bird seeds, lesson plans, and home activities for students. A weather station atop a nearby shed connects to the Internet and tracks humidity and temperature.
The students’ pride in their work is evident. Huneycutt said students in this year’s class of third graders “will often point to a plant and say, ‘This one is mine.’” During recess, students often wander through the garden rather than play on the playground. This year’s second grade class will continue to maintain the garden now that it is completed. The teachers are also doing a book study on science journals in order to extend the use of the journals in different ways.
Heiser was quick to point out the real value of the garden to the school. “The key is that they linked this garden to educational objectives,” she said. “It’s not just about looks.”