From Alley to Classroom, An Educational Garden Grows at the Burbank

Photo: Opening of the Burbank’s Garden Classroom with a ribbon cutting led by Principal Tricia Clifford.

On Friday afternoon, June 5, students, teachers, parents and residents joined Principal Dr. Tricia Clifford cutting the ribbon to open the newest classroom at the Mary Lee Burbank Elementary School.

But this classroom at the School Street school does not have a white board, book shelves, chairs, desks or even a ceiling.

Instead, it has a butterfly garden, a playful fairy ring, a Colonial herb garden, a Wetu wigwam and a weather station. Welcome to Burbank’s Garden Classroom, a once abandoned strip of land transferred into a landscaped area that Clifford believes “the core values at Burbank will come alive … where students can participate in activities that promote a love of learning, respect, and well-being.”

Designed by Belmont landscape architect Elizabeth Gourley with input from Burbank teachers and students, the outdoor classroom allows hands-on learning aligned with specific curriculum requirements at each grade level. In fact, Burbank teachers and students are already using the Garden Classroom as an opportunity for an enrichment experience. Kindergarten students buried “magic” beans for their study of fairy tales, and third graders planted a selection of herbs used in colonial Massachusetts.

“We are going to encourage classes to come out during the day and take their learning outside into a different context and have the after-school program to use it as much as they can,” said Harriet Wong, co-chair of the Burbank PTA which co-sponsored the creation of the garden.

The garden classroom join’s the school’s organic vegetable garden, also established this year with co-sponsorship from Massachusetts Agriculture in the Classroom.

The project’s genesis came after Clifford told the PTA last year how she wished something creative could be done in the “bowling alley” – an unloved, forgotten rectangular strip of land adjacent to the right side of the school – and “it grew from there,” said PTA co-president Laurie Bufano.

The PTA approached landscape designers for the best way to use the land, as well as talking to Massachusetts Audubon’s Habitat Intergenerational Program’s Phyl Solomon and teacher Ben Ligon of the Chenery Middle School’s Courtyard which a decade ago turned the school’s central interior from a concrete afterthought into a lush garden and patio.

With funds from co-sponsor the Foundation for Belmont Education and the PTA along with donations from the community and hundreds of hours of pro-bono work, the challenge changed from planning the space to actually building it on a small budget.

“At that point, we said to make this a success, we needed an Eagle Scout,” Bufano said.

Enter Walker Thomas. Last summer, the Belmont High School sophomore – a Burbank alum whose brothers attend the school – thought he would set aside “a few weeks” to plan and build a community project as part of his Eagle Scout submission.

“I didn’t know at the time how big and involved it would become,” said Thomas, who already was a basketball player, marching band participant and member of the high school’s Model UN.

“But working with Mr. [Michael] White [of Continuum Landscape Architects who became the garden’s project manager], I began to coordinate all the different working parts that would be needed,” said Thomas.

Working in close collaboration with the Burbank PTA since the fall and playing a leading role throughout, Thomas oversaw the clearing and preparation of the site last fall (much done with this scout troop) to prepare for installation of the garden.

After the long winter, main construction finally began April 25 with site excavation by local landscapers – and former Burbank students – Brendan and Steve Kelly who prepared the patch of land for the largest group of workers, two dozen students from Minuteman High School in Lexington.

Enrolled at the school’s Horticulture and Landscape Program, the students spent two weeks working from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. gaining practical experience with the Garden Classroom. The project is the largest the students have taken on to date, involving a full installation from the ground up following design specifications and on-site adjustments. Minuteman instructors Sarah Ard and Peter Kelleher directed the students’ work along with White.

On May 13, the students completed – on schedule – installation of the garden’s hardscape and main features. Burbank families, alumni, and student volunteers gathered on Saturday, May 16, to “Plant Something!” in the classroom.

This past Friday, as students sang, ate popsicles and danced around a May Pole, adults and volunteers toured the site that just months earlier was all but forgotten.

“We’re thrilled,” said PTA’s Bufano. “We never thought we would get exactly this.”

“This will make learning so much more memorable. When kids do something physical it sticks with them,” said Wong.

It’s been a really humbling experience,” said Thomas, who will be entering his junior year at Belmont High in the fall.

“It’s pretty surreal not to have any more deadlines to be working towards. It looks awesome. I’m very happy how it turned out,” he said.

Editor’s note: The Burbank PTA wants to acknowledge the generous contributions of many to the Garden Classroom project, including:

  • The Foundation for Belmont Education,
  • Minuteman High School,
  • Michael White, Continuum Landscape Architects,
  • Liz Gourley, Elizabeth Gourley Design,
  • Kelly Brothers Landscaping Co.,
  • Walker Thomas, Eagle Scout candidate and Burbank alumnus,
  • Boy Scouts of America, Troop 66,
  • Mahoney’s Garden Centers,
  • Martignetti Enterprises,
  • Wagon Wheel Nursery,
  • ML Fence Company
  • Belmont Department Public Works, and
  • Belmont Public Schools Facilities Department.

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