A courtyard grows at Hillcrest Elementary


Young minds aren't the only things growing at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville.

There are marigolds. And cherry tomatoes. And pumpkins. And red lettuce. And with the snip of a blue-and-gold ribbon on May 9, the school's new courtyard and outdoor classroom was opened formally for more learning to take root and blossom.

The ribbon-cutting marked the official opening of the enclosed gardens and plant beds, but students have been tilling its soil for months, even as the $22,000 courtyard project grew around them. Sporting a weather station for Grade 5 science students, a composting and recycling station called "The Graveyard," and student-painted pathways depicting Maryland flora and fauna, the courtyard now serves as a unique learning space.

"It's fun to go outside every so often because it gets boring just sitting in class all the time," said fifth-grader Ian Miller. "When we can go out and interact with nature, it really lightens up your day."

Miller accompanied BCPS Superintendent Dr. Dallas Dance on May 9 as he joined Principal Theresa McVey, Board of Education member Michael Bowler, and Baltimore County Councilman Tom Quirk in a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony at the courtyard. They heard from some of the architects of the project as well, including PTA President Jennifer Parker, Dr. Clare Walker, who led the courtyard committee, and Grade 2 teacher Kate Jaudon. 

On the tour, dignitaries saw second-grader Hallie Shepard tending to raised vegetable beds and fifth-graders Johanna Colmer and Chris Singleton measuring rainfall at the weather station. They learned about decomposition from third-grade students Dan Capka and Adele Jones. And they helped first-graders Jasmin Coleman and Finn Alexander plant marigolds to keep pests away.

Dubbed "Hedgie's Garden" after the school's hedgehog mascot, the courtyard almost never happened. After a 2008 classroom addition enclosed a central grassy area in the middle of the school, plans called for the lot to be paved. But the school's parents and PTA asked that it be transformed instead into an outdoor classroom.

With more than $22,000 in donated plants, design services, and funding, the first crops were planted in April 2011. Children have used the gardens for learning about every aspect of elementary school curriculum, from math to art and writing. A tiled mosaic on one wall, featuring a sun, tree and garden, is the handiwork of an artist-in-residence working with older Hillcrest students.

"It connects with us in science class, too," said Ian Miller when asked how the courtyard would help his studies. "It keeps transforming every year.

"I might come back when I'm able to visit, to see Ms. Jaudon," he added. "And to see how the gardens are doing."

Story and photos by Charles Herndon, BCPS communications specialist.
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