Just in time for the new school year, a new outdoor classroom is in bloom at Village School on McCampbell Road in Holmdel. Located within the center of the school complex, the courtyard has been transformed from ordinary blacktop into a lush greenscape, complete with four seasonal rain gardens, a new learning tool that will also benefit the local environment.
“The rain garden recycles stormwater to create beautiful and environmentally progressive seasonal rain gardens, along with a tremendous learning experience for the children ofVillage School,” said Superintendent of Schools Barbara Duncan, welcoming the new project at the township Board of Education meeting Sept. 29.
The rain garden project, funded by the Holmdel Township Environmental Commission, New Jersey American Water Co. and the Monmouth County Park System, was planned and landscaped under the direction of Bill Balicki, director of plant operation and maintenance for the Holmdel Township School District.
Rain gardens are landscaped areas that allow rainwater and snow to be collected and seep naturally into the ground, recharging groundwater supply to prevent pollution and stormwater runoff, according to the Rutgers University Cooperative Research and Extension program, which helped educate students about the project.
“It is really coming to life as we speak,” Principal Brian Schillaci said. “With the rain that’s been coming down over the last couple of days, we’ve been getting great use out of it.”
The project is part of $1 million in county funding for improvements to the Ramanessin Brook area, which runs adjacent to the school on the west side of Middletown Road.
With school back in session, plans are already in place to give students from pre-K to third grade the opportunity to take ownership of each seasonal rain garden, one for spring, summer, fall and winter, under the supervision of Carol Dempsey, Village School library media specialist.
As the children grow up, the rain gardens will grow too. Each grade level will be assigned to an individual rain garden, which the pupils will study and nurture throughout the school year.
“We are going to work up a rotation so each grade level is assigned a season or a garden,” Dempsey said.
Each grade will focus its curriculum on a garden, so that by the end of the program, the students will have gone through each of the seasons and each of the gardens, and have a better understanding about rain gardens, Dempsey said.
Before the construction of the rain gardens began, the Village School site produced a large amount of stormwater runoff from the roof and gutters, which inundated the pavement, according to Assistant Principal Dionne Ledford.
“We were a site that had a lot of runoff, and it became very saturated with water,” Ledford said. “That’s why the initiative was brought here.”
Before the rain gardens were installed, the water would just run off the roof, carrying pollutants, Ledford added.
Now during a rainfall, water travels from the roof of the school into a piping system. The rainwater then flows through a series of underground pipes that empty onto a garden and stones.
The garden area is a shallow depressed space where water is captured, pollutants are filtered out and plants absorb nutrients.
During the fall, students will learn about plants native to the climate, such as seaside goldenrod and royal fern. The department of buildings and grounds also decided to plant joe-pye weed, a type of plant that attracts butterflies.
To date, 839 students have planted 620 plants on the rain garden grounds.
“The kids really have a wonderful experience out there with the planting,” Schillaci said. “Every single class and every child got an opportunity to be out there.”
In the classroom, teachers are using the new garden as a cross-curricular initiative, which combines science, math and language arts skills.
“This [rain garden] will help with the curriculum already in the classroom,” Ledford said. “Writing about what they see, science journals, literacy journals … all of those kinds of things.”
In September, members from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension program explained how nonpoint source water pollution happens by using a model watershed called “Messy Town.” The educators used colored sugar and cake sprinkles to symbolize how pollution washes through streams and into a pond.
“The kids saw it was dirty water,” Dempsey said. “The way to clean that up is to obviously recycle, pick up after your dog, but then the other way is to plant a rain garden. The rain garden takes the water, filters it through the plants, slows down the process of it coming out, and when it comes out, it is cleaner water for the environment.”
With the rain garden now in place, the Holmdel Foundation for Educational Excellence (HFEE) has a goal to make the gardens a fully functional outdoor learning environment for lessons that directly tie in to the science curriculum in all the grades.
According to the HFEE, an additional $22,000 is needed to purchase and install two self-contained learning centers with weather-proof tables, seating and benches in two locations within the rain gardens.
“We feel it is a perfect complement to what we achieved last year, which was the purchase of the world language lab,” HFEE trustee Teresa Graw said at the Sept. 29 Board of Education meeting.
The group will host fundraising events to achieve its goal.