Anyone who’s ever been a kid can probably remember what it was like to sit in a hot classroom as the minutes ticked ever so slowly by, staring longingly out the window.
Now a school in Astoria is giving students the chance to escape the confines of the classroom and learn in a newly built outdoor space. The state of the art “learning garden” at PS 84, built in time for the new school year, is one of the many green projects funded by, of all things, a windfall settlement with Con Edison.
It all started during the July 2006 power outage, when western Queens sweltered without electricity for 10 days. In the aftermath, a group of residents formed Power for the People, and they didn’t just get mad, they litigated.
The group demanded $63 million in damages from ConEdison and won. Part of that money — $7.9 million to be exact —was set aside as a grant fund for green projects throughout western Queens. The city chose an organization called North Star to administer the money, now called the “Greening Western Queens Fund.”
The learning garden at PS 84, initially conceived by the Horticultural Society of New York, is just one of many projects that received grant money from the fund last year.
The grant’s point, according to Pamelo Ito, director of children’s education at the Horticultural Society, was to “help to cool Queens.” The Horticultural Society approached the Department of Education with the idea to build outdoor classrooms in Queens, and PS 84 was selected as an ideal place for a learning garden. But, even with the $50,000 grant, the organization still needed more money to build the garden.
Enter area landscape architect Sal Bacarella, owner of a company called Green Works, who stepped in and contributed $40,000 of his own money to build the garden.
“This one hit close to home,” Bacarella said of the project. The Astoria native’s business is just blocks away from the school. Beyond money, he lent his considerable expertise to the project. His 10-year-old company Green Works specializes in “green elements and sustainability,” he explained.
Bacarella built a “brilliant watering system” for the garden, according to PS 84’s Assistant Principal Tony Loverso. The landscaper took advantage of the area’s natural slope, using it to collect rainwater in a catch basin. That water can in turn feed the garden’s plants, a collection of roses, grasses, evergreen shrubs, native lilies, annual crysthanamums and ferns.
“It’s a good example of how design can have a real impact on the environment,” Ito said of the garden. Instead of running into the Hudson River, rainwater can be put to good use, she explained, and an area’s natural topography can have a direct relationship with a garden’s design.
“We don’t have to use drinking water to water plants,” she said.
Students access the collected rainwater by using a hand-crank pump, Ito said. Besides creating a beautiful environment for all grades to learn in, the garden will also be used to teach students about the environment and sustainability. The Horticultural Society has been training teachers and will launch classes for students on nature and rainwater collection this week, according to Loverso.
“We have a wonderful science laboratory,” Loverso said. “But nothing compares to having the children experience it first hand and hands on.”
All classes at the school, from pre-K to the 8th grade, will have a chance to spend time in the garden, he said. Beyond learning, the garden is “just a beautiful place to have a change of scenery … as opposed to being cooped up in an apartment or classroom.”
And this outdoor garden may be the first of seven total at schools in western Queens if the Horticultural Society’s latest grant application to Greening Western Queens is approved, according to Ito. The society has asked for $250,000 now, which would fund three more gardens, and would hope to build an additional three gardens later. For his part, Bacarella has pledged $150,000 of his own money to build the first three.
When asked why Green Works had pledged the money, Bacarella was matter of fact.
“We wanted to give back,” he said.
He hoped the garden will teach future generations about the environment. “I think a green curriculum should be instilled in today’s youth,” he said. “Our kids need to understand what it means to be sustainable.”