ARLINGTON, Virginia, October 12, 2012 – Parents at Campbell Elementary School in Arlington finally have an answer for their children when they ask, “When will the Wetlands be built?” This weekend!
After many delays, the Wetlands Learning Lab project that parents hoped to pull off last winter is coming to fruition Saturday, October 13, when the school will hold an event it is calling The Big Plant alongside the school’s regular monthly garden workday. Organized by Campbell alumnus Paul Petrich as an Eagle Scout project, the 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. event will divide parents, children and other community members into ten teams to install over 500 plants.
Campbell’s Wetlands Learning Lab has been years in the making. As the school’s “Turtle Tales” newsletter explained this week, Campbell Elementary sits on the site of natural springs, and “The abundance of water near 7th Road and along the back of the property has been an ongoing obstacle.”
Only parents new to the school need such explanation; everyone else has seen firsthand the water gushing and freezing, melting and refreezing all winter long, not to mention the muddy unusable sandbox that used to live on the new Learning Lab site.
Now, thanks to the efforts of the Schoolyard Committee of the school’s PTA, students are on the verge of having a new swath of green space in which to observe wildlife and conduct experiments. The process took far longer than had been hoped.
“We needed to hold on to our vision with patience and persistence,” said kindergarten teacher and 2011-2012 Schoolyard Committee Chair Pat Findikoglu, now retired. “A project of this size gets very complicated,” she said, especially since the school was required to meet the requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Ordinance for a land disturbance permit through the county, which meant involving Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services. “There was no road map” on this long road, Findikoglu explained. She and her committee members had to learn as they went along.
“We’re trying to teach students to become stewards of the earth,” said Landscape Designer Nancy Striniste of EarlySpace, LLC. In preparation for Saturday’s Big Plant, Striniste – also the co-founder of Arlington Children and Nature Network (CANN) and a founding board member of NoVA Outside – spent nearly eight hours at the school on Wednesday, placing sticks in the ground to aid volunteers at Saturday’s event. Petrich had prepared the sticks with the names of plants the school provided by the non-profit group Earth Sangha.
Green Earth Landscaping of Leesburg had agreed to perform the job at a special off-season rate if the work was completed in the slow season before March. With this time-sensitive goal in mind, the Schoolyard Committee organized several fundraisers last year, including a spell-a-thon in December 2011 and a benefit concert and silent auction in January. These efforts raised an a total of over $30,000 on top of the $10,000 the project had already received from a grant from the Washington Forrest Foundation and another grant from Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment. This fundraising success was no small feat for a Title I school with many low-income families.
Schoolyard Committee members were surprised to later after all these efforts that, due to the size and projected cost of the project, the school system would require several competing bids to be obtained, even though Campbell planned to use only its own raised funds for the project. Eventually Green Earth was awarded the contract and began work in August, digging up asphalt and carving out the creek and pond beds, and watching to see what the natural springs would do once uncovered.
Many of Campbell’s students lack regular access to natural outdoor spaces in and around their homes and to environmental enrichment opportunities outside of school. While one of the goals at in creating the Wetlands Learning Lab was to make a soggy place safe and to restore the environment to its natural state, instructional goals were just as important. Teachers and parents at Campbell, Arlington’s only Expeditionary Learning (EL) school, hoped the Wetlands Learning Lab would actively and regularly involve children in learning about – and through – their environment. One of the “Big Ideas” at Campbell is “Nature is our teacher.”
The Wetlands Learning Lab is expected to become a wildlife habitat corridor with neighboring Long Branch Nature Center. Within days of the basic structure being dug in August, Striniste spotted a frog who had already found its way to the newly exposed creek. “It took my breath away,” she wrote in an email with the subject heading, “If you build it, they will come.”
The site will eventually have benches for observation and a bird blind. Additional fundraising efforts may be required for upkeep, but students were so excited about last year’s spell-a-thon, the PTA is considering making that an annual event to build a sense of pride and ownership in this special feature of the school, and in it its homegrown history.
The Wetlands Learning Lab will have a small dedication with APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy on October 29 to officially open the space for instruction. The PTA and its Schoolyard Committee plan to organize a much larger celebratory community event in the spring when all the plants that will be installed this weekend will be fully established.
This weekend’s Big Plant will include volunteers from Petrich’s Eagle Scout Troop 648 as well as from Emerging Leaders, a program of Edu-Futuro that prepares Latino youth in Arlington and Falls Church for college. Campbell school-based substitute and Schoolyard Committee Chair Jan McMahon has also organized other gardening tasks to busy any overflow volunteers in maintaining the rest of the school’s elaborately planted grounds and garden beds and in removing invasive vines from the area behind the Wetlands Learning Lab.
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