Key School students get dirty in Hillsmere’s community rain garden.
The din of approaching teenagers was unmistakable. On Friday, 11th grade students
from The Key School ambled from their school down the road toward the Hillsmere rain garden ready to get dirty.
As part of Key School’s week of Earth Day activities, this grade had the task of
sprucing up the swale-and-ridge garden—technically known as a bio-retention
stormwater conveyance—that captures and filters water from about 5 or 6 acres
surrounding the Hillsmere community pool.
The garden diverts about 160,000 gallons of water (based on a 1 inch rainstorm) from entering Lake Hillsmere, and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. Slowing and diverting this water means less sediment and fewer pollutants washing
off the land and into the water.
Originally conceived of and installed 11 months ago by three adult members of the
Watershed Stewards first graduating class, the rain garden transformed two existing
dry stormwater intake “ponds” lined with turf into a more biologically diverse and
environmentally saavy pair of reconfigured basins.
But, the rain garden requires a bit of ongoing maintenance to help it function
properly and to keep it aesthetically pleasing.
Kevin Green, a Hillsmere resident and one of the three master watershed stewards
involved in the project, had pulled together the required mulch, chips, plants, and
gloves. All he needed was the labor.
That’s where the 11th-grader came in.
Green gave the students a quick introduction to the rain garden and its purpose,
handed out work gloves, and let them get to work.
Overseen by several Key faculty members, the students took full advantage of their
time outside the classroom, joking around, cutting up, and generally having a good
time as they shoveled and spread mulch, created a wood-chip walking path, pulled
weeds, and planted.
“This is so Key School,” said Julia Simmons as she spread mulch around the
“It’s a great bonding experience,” said Ben Winkler, also 17, mostly referring to
the fact that he had just helped fellow student, John Brown, remove the droppings
from an overhead bird off Brown’s head and shoulder.
Anne Barenkamp, a new Humanities teacher at Key, is a first-timer for the
school’s annual Earth Day projects. Adept at keeping the students in line, and even
appreciating their “impeccable comic timing,” she half laughed and half rolled her eyes at the boys’ less-than-efficient and verging-on-dangerous method of loading mulch into the wheelbarrows.
When one boy refused to hand off one of his two tools to another, she asked, “Do you want to give him one of the tools? And by 'Do you want,’ I mean, please give him one of the tools.”
Student Marlee Fox added, “They [the boys] do this all the time, but usually they
don’t have sharp tools.”
Despite the antics, in less than two hours the students had spread much of the dark,
rich mulch around the plants, pulled many weeds, and spread the wood chips
to create a curved path on the ridge separating the two catchments.
Meanwhile, less than a mile away, another group of ten 11th graders had joined the
6th grade project beautifying the community Hillsmere beach. For the fifth year, the
sixth grade has helped with this specific project.
“This has been a tradition for five years and now we can’t imagine not doing it," said middle-school math teacher Susan Flynn. "It’s a great way for Key and the community to get together.”
Two sixth-grade girls, Sophia Laughlin and Elena Bach, took their mission quite
earnestly and seemed to have a remarkably good understanding of how their
actions would benefit the beach’s rain garden.
“We’ve been pulling out willow shoots, which are invasive and pull up too much
water, so this is good,” Elena said.
“I’m really happy to be helping out because Hillsmere gives a lot to our school and
I’m happy to be giving back,” added Sophia.
Both projects are community-based collaborations that show students the power of
their actions on a local level, and provide much-needed and energetic assistance to
keep the projects going. For the pool rain garden—a relatively new project—Kevin
Green said he hopes the Key students will become regular partners.
“You’ve got to come out here every year and mulch and weed and get it ready for
another year,” he said. “I’m hoping to work with Key to do this annually. We can
offer them access to use this project as a living classroom.”