This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Marcquaan Marion was in kindergarten, his school’s playground was an empty asphalt parking lot with a lone basketball hoop and not a single a patch of shade.
Marion, now a 7th grader, spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday for Chester Arthur Elementary School’s new Outdoor STEM Learning Lab. When complete, the playground for the school at 20th and Catharine Streets will be transformed into a green space with multiple outdoor classrooms for inquiry-driven learning in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Nafisa Jackson, also a 7th grader, said small improvements can go a long way. Jackson remembers her days at school before the current playground was added to a small corner of the parking lot several years ago.
“We really weren’t able to play — we just had the basketball court,” Jackson said. “I like having a bench to sit on where it’s shady.”
The project was put together by the Friends of Chester Arthur (FOCA), a neighborhood group, along with the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia and the William Penn Foundation.
Mike Burlando, co-chair of FOCA’s Schoolyard Committee, said that landscape architects had found that the temperature of the asphalt reaches 140 degrees on a hot, sunny day.
The new outdoor learning space, which is expected to be completed in November, will be the largest public green space in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood and will be maintained jointly by the school and its neighboring community.
In addition to trees and gardens, the space will include two outdoor classrooms, four STEM labs, a 50-meter track, a multi-use court, a climbing zone, and sensory green walls for students with certain disabilities.
Kimberly Newman, the school’s principal, said, “In an urban setting, it’s very rare when you can have both outdoor and indoor classrooms.”
The smaller outdoor classroom will feature a Habitat Lab, where the students will learn about the food web and pollination by creating their own outdoor habitat. Nearby will be a Systems Lab, which will help demonstrate ecological systems like stormwater management — a big challenge in urban areas.
The Motion Lab will be in the large outdoor classroom at the center of the 50-meter track. With a sundial in the center, it will be used to teach proportions, mechanics, and astronomy.
The Energy Lab will have a raised garden where students can grow food and learn about seeds, waste cycles, and making compost from their school’s food waste.
In his remarks at the ceremony, Superintendent William Hite called the project “a first of its kind in Philadelphia.” He said he was proud to support the school’s effort to adopt an inquiry-based teaching model, which they began implementing in classrooms last year.
In a statement, he thanked the partners and funders for helping the school redesign its physical space in a way that complements its teaching model.
The curriculum will be designed in collaboration with the College of New Jersey’s Center for Excellence in STEM. The college has already been collaborating with the landscape architects in designing the outdoor classrooms and will continue to provide professional development for teachers over the next three years.
Newman described the curriculum as a “fluid document” that will be developed based on the needs of individual teachers and their lesson plans.
Funding for the project comes, in large part, from a $1.1 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.
The foundation’s program director, Elliot Weinbaum, said in a statement: “With this project, we believe that great public spaces, children’s innate curiosity, and their desire to play can combine to produce tremendous outcomes for education and communities.”
The Philadelphia Water Department provided a $230,000 grant for the space’s stormwater management system. Second District City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson helped obtain a $110,000 grant from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority for the project.
“Developing a robust STEM curriculum together with interactive and real-time educational approaches to cultivate new greening practices sets a new standard for Philadelphia’s educational system,” Johnson said in a statement. “I wholeheartedly applaud the visionaries who pursued this project.”
At the ceremony, he called the project “a labor of love.”
“This is part of creating that pipeline to make sure we have high-quality educational opportunities. We need to create that kindergarten-to-college pipeline.”