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three elementary students observing their teacher demonstrante how to plant a plant in their new raised garden bed

PS #33 students planting their first seeds in the new raised garden beds. Photo by Robert Deitchler, courtesy of Gensler

An exciting partnership led by EcoRise brought together community members, nonprofit organizations, and corporations for the benefit of Jersey City public school students. Over the past two years, EcoRise has been working with students, educators, and a host of partners at Dr. Paul Rafalides School, PS #33 in Jersey City to transform an underused courtyard area in front of the building into a vibrant outdoor space to support student learning and build community pride. The Lion’s Learning Garden demonstrates the enormous power of community collaboration and partnerships. First envisioned by staff, parents, and students in 2020, the project goal was to create a lively outdoor space that would improve learning outcomes for students and offer a space for nature-based play. The project included a complete redesign of the courtyard in front of the school building, including plant installations and the construction of an outdoor classroom.

MetLife Foundation provided critical support for this project, including funding and employee volunteers to complete the buildout at PS #33 over two community workdays. EcoRise and MetLife Foundation have partnered since 2019 to establish programs across 127 classrooms in New Jersey and NYC.

EcoRise facilitated community partnerships to ensure the Lion’s Learning Garden had a larger-scale, collective impact. Our friends at Gensler Architecture’s NYC office offered their design expertise pro-bono to help bring the new Lion’s Learning Garden outdoor classroom to life. EcoRise and the Gensler team worked closely with community stakeholders to ensure the project would meet their needs. We met with the principals, educators, and a PTA representative from the school to understand their hopes for the space. We learned about students’ needs and goals and took the school district’s facility guidelines into account to ensure that the upkeep and maintenance of the new space would be a low lift for facilities staff.

Community partners fortified this project, bringing their expertise and knowledge of best practices to our work. In the design, Gensler prioritized design methods that foster student learning, native plant needs to create a self-maintaining and beneficial ecosystem, and upcycling and repurposing materials from the old courtyard to minimize the environmental footprint. Local non-profit, City Green, joined our coalition offering local garden know-how and supplies. EcoRise worked with City Green to provide a garden introduction workshop for PS #33 teachers in February 2023 to ensure they were comfortable and knowledgeable when taking their students into the new space.

EcoRise and Gensler invited our friends at STO Building Group to contribute their school construction management know-how to the team. They helped finalize the design plans, ensure safety and district requirements were met, and worked with the school staff to prepare for the build day. Three days of construction took place in May 2023. STO Building Group volunteers installed raised garden beds, a water drainage system, a greenhouse, a tool shed, and seating. City Green provided garden tools, soil, and low-maintenance, well-adapted plants and seeds. On the final build day, volunteers from MetLife, Gensler, STO Building Group, and EcoRise joined together to move dirt, plant native plants, repaint the front stoop, and more. The final touches created a solid base for a beautiful and vibrant outdoor learning space that included low-maintenance landscaping, colorful planters, stone pathways, creative bench seating for a whole class, and portable outdoor cushions for an additional class.

A few days later, students were welcomed into the new space! City Green christened the outdoor classroom by hosting a school garden learning day. Students were amazed by the courtyard transformation. They enjoyed an outdoor lesson, exploring the space, getting their hands dirty, planting vegetables and herbs, and making the outdoor learning classroom their own. All-in-all, the Lion’s Learning Garden is a great example of how when organizations participate in cross-sector collaboration, communities can benefit. The beautiful, new, native ecosystem at Dr. Paul Rafalides School, PS #33 in Jersey City Public Schools, will provide a new way for the elementary students to learn about the world around them and provide an alternative classroom when the indoors get stuffy. We’d like to thank Gensler Architecture and STO Building Group for bringing their excellent craftsmanship to this project. City Green is excited to provide ongoing garden education support for the school and EcoRise will continue providing educational support for teachers so that they can make the most of the new space with their students, thanks to generous support from MetLife Foundation!