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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Around the World on a Friday Evening at Burbank’s Multicultural Fair

Photo: Three Burbank 2nd-grade students sing a Chinese song at the recent Burbank Multicultural Fair. (All photos by Glenn Wong.)

With passports in their hands, students from the Mary Lee Burbank Elementary School took a whirlwind journey around the world … all on a Friday evening without having the leave their School Street building.

On Friday, Nov. 21, the school hosted the Burbank Multicultural Fair, organized by the Burbank PTA and supported by a grant from the Belmont Cultural Council to allow the community to learn about the several cultures and countries that makes up the population who attend the school. 

Children and parents visited more than 16 countries and many cultures on display in the cafeteria. A series of colorful exhibits included pictures, maps, crafts, language, literature, and foods presented by participating Burbank families.

Then came the parade of students dressed in the traditional clothing of their ancestral culture. There were performances of Chinese song by second grade students, a Nepali folk dance, a classical Indian dance by the Aakriti School of Indian Dance as well as songs from Finland and Switzerland curtesy of a Burbank family.

Wellesley College’s Yanvalou Drum and Dance Ensemble gave an energetic performance of native music from Haiti and Ghana, complete with a variety of authentic drums and other instruments.  Yanvalou’s Director Kera Washington led the audience in singing and clapping, while children played instruments to the dance beat.

Burbank Principal Tricia Clifford thanked all the participants and applauded the learning and community building inspired by celebrating the school’s different cultures.


Burbank Students, Parents Take A Walk To School

The Mary Lee Burbank School celebrated Massachusetts Walk to School Day on Wednesday, May 7, with a record 255 students who walked or biked to school, or walked a circuit around the school before the day began.
Walk to School Day and related programs are organized by the Burbank Walks PTA Committee in partnership with Massachusetts Safe Routes to School.
Built in the 1930s as a neighborhood school, Burbank still has a relatively small district. The majority of students live within half a mile of the school. While many families do walk to school regularly, Burbank’s PTA has made a huge push this year to actively encourage more walking and biking in order to reduce traffic congestion around the school which was leading to concerns for student safety.
“It’s terrific to see so many students and families walking” said Burbank’s Principal Tricia Clifford.Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 8.13.23 AM
“Walking to school promotes  wellness and strengthens our community,” she said.
Celebrity Walkers were out to greet students and walk with them to school, including Laurie Graham of the Belmont School Committee, Belmont Police Officer Michael Horan, and John MacDonald of the Belmont Fire Department. Ten Burbank staff members also took part as Celebrity Walkers and helpers.
When students arrived at school they signed their name in chalk on the Burbank Walks Hall of Fame.
Burbank also launched a new initiative on Walk to School Day: Walking School Buses. In partnership with Massachusetts Safe Routes to School, the Burbank PTA conducted a Walking Assessment and then planned four new Walking School Bus routes. In a Walking School Bus a group of children walk to school together accompanied by parent “bus drivers” and following a set route with stops to pick up ‘passengers’ along the way. On Walk to School Day more than 60 children participated in a Walking School Bus and had fun walking with their neighbors.
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Burbank is encouraging students to continue to walk regularly through the spring term. Walking School Buses will operate every Wednesday, dubbed Walking Wednesdays, through the end of the school year. The pilot Walking School Bus program will be reviewed and expanded for the new school year in September.
On each Walking Wednesday this spring, Burbank’s classes will compete for a Burbank Walks Trophy. The grade Kindergarten to two grade class with the most students walking or biking to school will win the Golden Sneaker Trophy, while third and fourth grade classes compete for the Silver Sneaker award.  The trophies are presented to the winning classes by Principal Clifford, to be displayed for a week in the classroom until the following Walking Wednesday contest.
The Butler elementary school also celebrated Massachusetts Walk/Bike to School Day on May 7.