NEW YORK—Students at Manhattan School for Children (MSC) on West 93rd Street guided tours through their new science classroom—a 1,420 square-foot, state-of-the art rooftop greenhouse on Monday. It is the first of its kind in the city at a public school, a pilot project, which may expand to 100 schools across the city over the next 10 years if successful.
The greenhouse got its start when a small group of parents banded together after visiting the Science Barge now docked in Yonkers. They were inspired to create a similar educational green space right on school premises. The barge is an urban farm on the water, formerly run by state corporation New York Sun Works.
The MSC parents—Manuela Zamora, Sidsel Robards, Rebecca Edwardson and Nancy Easton—approached New York Sun Works to help them get The Greenhouse Project off the ground. New York Sun Works also put them in touch with BrightFarm, a greenhouse engineering company that designed the barge, to incorporate the same sustainable and energy-efficient technologies into the school’s rooftop project.
“Here while students grow their food,” explained Zamora, “they learn hands on about water resource management, efficient land use, climate change, biodiversity, contamination, and sustainable development—every child should have access to a hands-on science program like this.”
While the garden has the potential to grow 8,000 pounds of fruit, vegetables, and herbs, the primary purpose of the facility is education.
A good education does not come cheap. The $800,000 project was mostly funded by private contributors, but some public funds were allocated to the cause by Borough President Scott Stringer and Council Member Gale Brewer.
“We can totally change the way New Yorkers eat, creating healthier neighborhoods around the city. But it all starts on our rooftops with our kids,” said Stringer.
He is hosting a seminar Wednesday night (Dec. 7) at Greenwich Village School, P.S. 41 to discuss the future of green rooftop learning facilities in public schools.
In addition to funding, permits, and space were obstacles to the development of this pilot greenhouse. The law states that only one-third of a rooftop can be used for this purpose. MSC had to get a waiver as an exception to the rule. Brewer has introduced legislation that would make the process of attaining such a waiver much simpler.
“One of the bills that comes out of this discussion is getting some abatement for people putting greenhouses on their roofs,” stated Brewer.
The school’s custodian, Mark Rubinsky, was a great help throughout the construction of the greenhouse said Laurie Schoeman, managing director of New York Sun Works. Being familiar with the building systems in the school, his enthusiasm for the project really helped it along. Essentially, many eager participants helped break through barriers encountered in the establishment of this public school pioneer.
“We’ve worked through a lot of the obstacles, which will make it easier for other schools to follow,” said Zamora.
The greenhouse cycles rainwater, uses hydroponics, and creates the many levels of a complete ecosystem, thereby requiring few external resources.
“There are fishes,” pointed out fifth-grader Calvin Robards, son of project founder Sidsel Robards, as he stood beside a hydroponics tank with plants above and tilapia below.
“When the fishes poop, the nitrate comes out of the poop when it breaks down and it comes up here to feed the plants,” continued Robards. He then explained that worms from the compost are used to feed the fish.
Little water is lost in the hydroponics system—much less than is needed in the traditional soil method. Giant water tanks will capture 40,000 gallons of rainwater a year. An added benefit of capturing rainwater, aside from saving on water obtained through the city is that less water will pick up pollutants and carry them into the city’s sewer system.
The greenhouse is herbicide and pesticide free. The kids are having fun raising critters to keep pests in control.
“We grow ladybugs in our classroom to kill the aphids,” explained kindergarten student Lucas.
“There are predatory wasps that are harmful to humans, but can flatten the pests,” added fourth-grader Jonah Rohlfing. The wasps may not be used in the garden, but it is evident that the students are learning even beyond what they are actually working on.
Proper insulation, heat blankets, a twin-wall polycarbonate roof, and solar paneling will reduce energy consumption in the greenhouse.
Science teacher Shakira Castronova is looking forward to her new classroom as much as the students are excited about getting their hands dirty—though little soil is actually involved here.
Fourth and second grade classes joined together to sing a “Gardener’s Song” for the people who came to see the innovative rooftop on Monday.
“Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and hoe
And a piece of fertile land.”
“Try to find a way to make each child become stewards of change or we risk catastrophic environmental loss,” said Schoeman. “This initiative will bring us to many communities in New York City. From the peaks and canyons of Midtown into the coastlines of Governor’s Island and to the Cypress Hills of Brooklyn, for we believe that no child should be left behind and every child should have access to this kind of experience.”