by Marissa Maier
Sag Harbor Elementary School science teacher Kryn Olson celebrated the first harvest yielded from the school’s garden and greenhouse in 2008. Olson, however, had spent five years getting the agricultural project off the ground.
Above: A digital mock-up of the outdoor classroom proposed behind the Sag Harbor Elementary School Building.
On Monday evening, Olson along with two district parents, Sam Panton and Ed Bruehl, presented a new plan to the board of education. The trio hopes to turn a triangular shaped plot of land behind the elementary school building into an outdoor, eco-centric classroom for young students. By funding the project exclusively through private donations, the group hopes the process from planning to completion will be expedited.
“We must start rethinking how we teach,” noted Olson. “We need to expose our children to sustainable agriculture and living practices.”
The concept of the project, explained Panton, is to teach children about the geological formation of the East End through growing native plant species at the site. Different planting areas would demonstrate a particular local eco-system, for example a fresh water wetland or a tidal wetland.
“We want the children to learn about Long Island and how the South and North fork were created,” noted Panton. “They will walk straight outside and see the sand and start to think about that concept.”
The project calls for an outdoor blackboard with a seating area surrounded by a semi-circle of linden trees, a meandering walkway, a large boulder, a rainwater retention system to irrigate the wetland areas, and planters for each classroom. A large part of the ground will be covered in crushed stone dust, which is a permeable surface. The group hopes to install a solar panel on the site, which could be placed on top of a storage container that already rests at the site, and a compost area to provide natural fertilizer for the rest of the property.
The outdoor seating area, added Olson, could be used for film screenings or concerts.
“We want to make this a sweet community area,” explained Olson. “[The project] is more community oriented.”
Bruehl added the boulder and other materials have already been donated. The labor, trees and solar panels will account for the largest expense. Bruehl noted the group intends to hold a series of fundraisers. Companies or families will be asked to individually sponsor one linden tree and a plaque acknowledging their donation will be installed near the tree. Teacher Janice Cosgrove offered her expertise in helping to raise funds.
“I was involved with an autism group and each year we raised enough for the salaries to pay for 40 teaching assistants,” said Cosgrove. “There are ways for this to be done.”
School board member Wes Frye inquired about the cost of maintaining the site once the work is completed. Panton said he designs outdoor spaces using “Zeroscaping” a concept of planting native plants that require little water. He seemed certain the school’s maintenance cost would decrease.
Though parent Chris Tice called the plan “phenomenal,” she noted the school is overrun with active children throughout the year. In the summer, Tice added, families visit the grounds while vacationing on the East End. She worried these heavy uses weren’t being taken into account.
“People said we would have problems with the greenhouse and we haven’t had any problems,” countered Olson. “We want it to be so comfortable that people just enjoy it.”
School board president Walter Wilcoxen said Bruehl, Panton and Olson presented the plans to the long range planning committee. Wilcoxen seemed extremely receptive to the project and added, “This is such an educational opportunity and they have put an awful lot of work in.”
Board member Ed Haye pointed out the funds raised for the project needed to be carefully tracked to avoid a lawsuit should the project not move forward. Wilcoxen suggested they create an exact proposal for bookkeeping the donations and send the plan to the school clerk. The board, added Wilcoxen, will then make comments on the project and send it to the school’s attorney for further consideration.