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Volunteers, educators work to revitalize school rain gardens

They save water and provide learning opportunities for students.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Water Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have been seeking to transform Philadelphia’s stormwater infrastructure by building rain gardens at schools, which help with stormwater management.

But the capacity for professional gardening for the School District is limited, so enterprising students have tried to step in.

Beau Greisiger, 16, an 11th grader at Harriton High School in Lower Merion, has been working with some of his friends – Finn Kent, 16, at Friends Central, and Alice Zehner, 16, at the Baldwin School – to help Philadelphia schools maintain their rain gardens. They have combined forces with Lois Brink at the nonprofit organization called The Big Sandbox and Javier Dominguez, a science teacher at Nebinger Elementary School in South Philadelphia.

Beyond the overall goal of increased sustainability, the rain gardens project could potentially save the District hundreds of thousands of dollars on its water bills and give elementary school students an opportunity to tend a natural habitat. There are about two dozen rain gardens at schools now, and a group of landscape architects is working on a project to build a rain garden at the Tanner Duckrey Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

Rain gardens are also fun. In September, a group of goats from the Philadelphia Goat Project visited the rain garden.

‘Green City, Clean Waters’

In 2011, Philadelphia started an initiative called “Green City, Clean Waters” to more effectively deal with stormwater runoff. The program, one of the first of its kind in the nation, was hailed as innovative.

In 2012, National Geographic called the plan “an ambitious use of environmentally friendly solutions” at a time when few cities were investing in green infrastructure like gardens. Sarah Madden, a master’s student in city planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, praised the program in her thesis, but warned that “the city departments have to come together to ensure that they don’t undermine the plan via inaction, inefficiencies, or poor communication.”

More than 20 gardens are now in existence, and a lot has happened since the start of the program. Recently, Jacquelyn Bonomo, the president and CEO of the environmental advocacy organization PennFuture, contended in a commentary for the Philadelphia Inquirer that the city has not fully maintained its commitment to green infrastructure.

She wrote: “We believe that the program is not being implemented to its fullest potential, with a shift away from green features and a greater emphasis on ‘gray’ infrastructure, such as tunnels and wastewater collection.” In her piece, she did not point to any specific failures of the Water Department or the city administration.

But although the program has produced a good number of green spaces in the city, including the rain gardens, the responsibility for maintaining those gardens has been turned over to the cash-strapped School District, which hires an environmental engineering firm called AKRF to maintain them.

“Maintenance occurs on a rotational basis,” said a District spokesperson in a statement, “and complies with the maintenance guidelines established by the Philadelphia Water Department.”

In return for the maintenance, and due to the resulting reduction in stormwater runoff, the District is supposed to receive credits on its water bills.

But Greisiger’s mother, Jamie Sheller, said this is not happening.

“Somehow the School District has been maintaining the gardens for a few years now and they have not been getting water credits back [as they were supposed to]. We have been trying to get to the bottom of why that is and everyone keeps saying it is the other person’s fault.”

Questioned about this, the District issued a statement saying that it is supposed to receive water credits “as long as the stormwater features are in compliance with regulations. The credits are still under negotiations with PWD. Some of the features were maintained by PWD for two years, and some were the responsibility of SDP from the get-go.”

The Water Department, through its Stormwater Credits Program, offers credits to “non-residential, condominium, and multi-family residential customers” who choose to install “stormwater management practices,” like a rain garden. After construction has been completed, an entity can apply for credits.

A spokesperson for PWD did not offer an explanation of the status of the District’s credits.

Power to the students

Greisiger, the Harriton student who has made a project of the Nebinger garden, enjoys gardening and grows tomatoes in his backyard in Bryn Mawr. He and his family also grow sunflowers in the front yard and save the seeds in the refrigerator to plant more each year. In season, he keeps a big, lush bowl of home-grown vegetables on his counter.

“He believes in sustainability and keeping everything green, like green areas in the city,” said Dominguez, the Nebinger science teacher. “He wanted to be a part of our school and our rain garden.”

Greisiger is on the environmental team at Harriton, which is in the Lower Merion School District. The team helps the school to retain its “green school” title by planting and maintaining gardens on the property.


Left to right, Nebinger science teacher Javier Dominguez, Harriton High School student Beau Greisiger, and Lois Brink of The Big Sandbox. (Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Sheller)

As a part of the rain gardens project in Philadelphia, he has held meetings with District officials, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Community Development. He has also been pitching the program to get grants from foundations and received one from the McLean Contributionship.

Some of the grant funds will pay for an after-school program run by Dominguez at Nebinger that teaches students how to take care of the garden.

“Hey Dr. D!” yelled a young girl walking down the street on her day off from school as Dominguez was walking through the garden on a fall day. A popular Nebinger teacher, he won the Lindback distinguished teacher award in 2017 and the Axalta All-Pro teacher award from the Philadelphia Eagles and Axalta coating systems company.

“Dr. D.” supervises three after-school science programs, keeping him busy every day of the week. These include a Science Olympiad program, where his middle school students have won first place in the citywide competition for the last four years in a row.

But why put in so much work? “The kids! It is all about the kids,” he said. “I know they enjoy the garden. I know they love it. I know they play in it. They are always exploring. They want to learn. When I have any opportunity to be out here and teach with them, I do.”

Dominguez tries to give the students in the city an appreciation for the outdoors, even though it can sometimes feel far away.

“I grew up half my life near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and I also grew up in the mountains in Puerto Rico where there was a lot of farmland,” he said. “So, I am used to it. I am used to farm work and garden work and being outside. For the kids here – they are city kids. It is important that they have a green space.”

This year, part of the rain gardens program was a visit from the goats of the Philadelphia Goat Project. In preparation for their arrival, students learned about the goats, including what they eat, what their respective names are, and how their anatomy works.

“You should have seen the smiles on all of the kids’ faces: It was amazing. Even the kids who were non-verbal, who had autism – they had smiles, they were petting, and some of them were walking the goats,” Dominguez recalled.

The goat visit was primarily educational, but the animals also helped to trim the overgrowth in the rain garden by eating invasive species. The McLean grant will allow more goat visits for the next four years: one more this year, three next year, and four visits the year after that, according to Sheller.

Student involvement, however, goes beyond just learning: These kids work. With a shed full of tools, including trimmers, wheelbarrows, and shovels, they plant vegetables, pick up trash, and take measurements and observations for a scientific database. The garden is full of evidence of the students’ activities: birdhouses, measurement equipment, and a weather station.

“We have planted tomato plants and we have been trying to get rid of ailanthus [an invasive tree species with a thick root system]. We had to get rid of that root. We spent hours trying to dig up the root, because it is huge and requires a lot of strength. I remember seeing the kids inspired and wanting to get this done,” said Greisiger.

The students in the science program send data to Greisiger about humidity levels, climate, bugs, trash in the garden, and any vegetables the garden has produced. Greisiger then uses this information to present data to PWD and School District officials district to show the progress of the rain garden and prove its worth.

“Lots of people think that this is someone else’s priority or this is someone else’s job, but we are showing them that it is up to us to take care of these gardens,” said Greisiger.

Twenty-five students from grades 3 to 8 at Nebinger participated in the after-school program last year, according to Dominguez.

Future of the project

At Duckrey, Greisiger and his friends Kent and Zehner are currently working with Lois Brink and The Big Sandbox. The plan is to build a rain garden, a basketball court, and a soccer field on the parking lot, which does not absorb water and causes excessive runoff.

Brink, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Colorado who lives in Philadelphia, revitalizes schoolyards here and in Denver. At Nebinger, she brought her students from the university to help her plan and build the rain garden, according to Dominguez. She has been planning a Duckrey project for five years, according to an ABC interview.

Such projects could have wide appeal throughout the city, and many schools might be interested in having their own rain gardens.

“I think a lot of schools want to start,” said Dominguez, “but they run into the problem of having no financial backing or they cannot find the people interested.”

The task for the Nebinger after-school program will be to revitalize and clean up the garden, which showed the effects of summer neglect – litter and weeds. Dominguez says that is normal when students and teachers come back for the school year.

Another problem to tackle is how to prevent balls from the adjacent playground from going into the garden. The bright orange fence there now, which is meant to contain the goats but also useful in stopping balls, is damaged.

Said Greisiger: “Right now, we have a temporary fence set up, but we need something more permanent, so that is what we are looking for grant money for.”