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Growing to Greatness

A big scissors opens the door to chess, picnic tables, and raised bed gardening.

The Collaborative's 2015 conceptual design for a green schoolyard at AMY Northwest has had many ripple effects—engaged students and teachers, an outdoor classroom, and a $500,000 grant from the Trust for Public Land. The Collaborative’s Stewart Scott and Sophie Bean recently sat down with Kay Sykora, formerly project director of the Manayunk Development Corporation's Destination Schuylkill River program, and Jodan Floyd, principal of AMY Northwest Middle School in Roxborough to talk about the project. 

When Jodan Floyd became AMY Northwest’s principal in 2013, she immediately began cultivating a hands-on learning environment for her students. AMY Northwest is a special admission math and science focused middle school located in Roxborough. “Our long-term goal is looking ahead to college and a career. But, short-term, we’re looking at ‘Do [our students] have the skills and mindset necessary for high school?’” says Floyd.

In fact, AMY Northwest's work with the Community Design Collaborative was inspired by a hands-on school lesson. “It really just started with a trip down to the creek with the students for some exploration and science lessons,” says Floyd. “From there, we started talking about wanting to enhance our outdoor space to actually have green space instead of a concrete slab.”

“It really just started with a trip down to the creek. From there, we started talking about wanting to have green space instead of a concrete slab.”

Floyd reached out to Kay Sykora, who has long seen learning opportunities in green stormwater management and open space. “I’ve lived in this area since I was in my 20s… I found that the kids didn’t know about the river’s wildlife and environment, so I started focusing on environmental education." Sykora had implemented local green stormwater management projects with North Light Community Center and Saul Agricultural High School. Both groups kickstarted their projects with design services from the Collaborative. Sykora urged AMY Northwest to apply for design services in partnership with the Manayunk Development Corporation (MDC). 

Joining Visions 
The Collaborative got the ball rolling at AMY Northwest with two complementary design efforts: a conceptual design led by Collaborative volunteers and a classroom-based design process led by Architecture in Education volunteers.  

Theresa Lewis-King, a science teacher at AMY Northwest, pushed to bring AIA Philadelphia's Architecture in Education (AIE) program to the school to give students the hands-on experiences that are a hallmark of the school. AMY Northwest students came together with faculty, members of MDC, and residents of Roxborough to envision a green schoolyard at two task force meetings.  Student plans and ideas developed through the AIE program became part of the visioning process.

The resulting conceptual plan provided opportunities for observation, recreation, and learning in green schoolyard landscape with a garden classroom, a rain garden, and an active recreation area with an oval fitness track, turf play area, and basketball court.

“The students had a tremendous learning experience through the process of coming up with the design for the whole schoolyard. And then from that design we were able to apply for grants for funding, starting with the garden classroom,” says Floyd. 

First Steps
Floyd had pursued some earlier fundraising campaigns, including going door-to-door for donations and hosting a 5K student race. But finding funding was challenging. “You can’t have people fund things without plans… and you can’t have plans without funding.”

“You can’t have people fund things without plans… and you can’t have plans without funding.”

With a conceptual plan to include with its grant applications, AMY Northwest encountered more success. The school received a $12,000 grant from the Neubauer Family Foundation and a $20,000 grant from the Hamels Foundation to build an outdoor classroom. The school and community celebrated the ribbon cutting for the project in August 2018.

Kay Sykora (left) and Jodan Floyd

Floyd and her students are currently basking in their new outdoor classroom space. “We’re growing, there’s green things happening, there’s a plan for the rest of the schoolyard. But most important is how proud the students are of the space out there."

“They come to school and have tables and green space and are just really excited. They’re in there every morning. At first, they asked, ‘Can we sit here?’ The other day they were eating breakfast out there. They were working on their projects," says Floyd. “They’re going to be part of the stewardship of keeping it going. We now have a Green Team and they’re going to be responsible for watering, bringing the chess pieces in, keeping track of trash and recycling." 

“There’s also a lot of engagement from all the staff in their various committees, because they see what happens when we get everyone on board and they do their part, and we get the community involved," she adds." I’ve definitely seen excitement from the staff and the students to see [the project] go from the paper that was in the hallway to the physical space outside.”

Ripple Effects
Even bigger schoolyard improvements are ahead. By demonstrating its commitment and capacity through the Collaborative design process, AMY Northwest received a $500,000 grant from the Trust for Public Land (TPL) for additional student-engaged design and planning, project management, and construction. Floyd expects demolition and construction to begin next summer, with a ribbon cutting anticipated in Fall 2019.

By demonstrating its commitment and capacity, AMY Northwest received a $500,000 grant from the Trust for Public Land. 

Floyd says working with the Collaborative introduced students to new interests and potential careers. “When you ask middle schoolers what they want to be when they grow up, they say, ‘Oh I want to be a doctor or lawyer.’  They’re the only two careers that exist. Through opportunities like this they see more career possibilities: ‘I could be an engineer, or I could be an environmentalist, or I can go into being an arborist.’”

“Through opportunities like this, students see more career possibilities.’”

Sykora adds that projects like AMY Northwest’s schoolyard have an impact on the surrounding community too. “I’ve seen how the design process engages people. It’s almost more important than the product!” She adds, “In this neighborhood I’m hoping to see the schools recognized more. Sometimes schools can only do a small project but the whole process of doing it creates a bigger visual for the school.”

Floyd agrees, “We have a new presence in the community. People are thinking the school is an option for my student. There are things going on here.”

See the conceptual design for this project and meet the volunteer design team!

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