Inner-city Ottawa school needs help to green its school yard

Inner-city Ottawa school needs help to green its school yard
Posted on April 11, 2014 | Angela Keller-Herzog | Written on April 11, 2014
Comments
Letter type:
Invitation

Dear editor, hello readers!

This letter has an 'action item', then there is a story, and then at the end there is some musing about policy issues that are askew. I hope some of you will stay with me 'till the end.  

Action item:

Please VOTE for Glashan School in Centretown Ottawa to win a $20,000 outdoor classroom! Glashan is the only Ottawa school to be a finalist in the Majesta Trees of Knowledge Competition. From April 7 to May 5, you can vote for Glashan every day.
Sign up here to get your daily voting reminder and voting link: http://glashangreening.ca/join-us/

The story:

“Our school looks like a jail!” says a student.

The schoolyard is bleak, mostly pavement. To make things worse, the majority of trees shading the yard are ash trees and have to be removed because they are infested by the emerald ash borer.

This is Glashan Public School, an Ottawa Carleton District School Board middle school  with a present population of almost 400 Grade 7 and 8 students. Glashan students come from the Glebe, Centretown, Lowertown, Sandy Hill and Old Ottawa South.  It is located in the heart of Ottawa, at the busy intersection of Catherine and Kent Streets.

The bleak inner-city schoolyard is in marked contrast to the vibrancy of the school and its positive spirit. Glashan prides itself on an ethos of inclusivity, and brings together students from a large catchment area with diverse ethnic and language backgrounds.

And now the School Council's Green Team has set itself the goal to make change. We want to see renewal and greening of the yard. Principal Jim Tayler, lent fuel to early discussions in the spring of 2013, “we should develop an overall vision and a plan, not just a fix here and a tree there”.  

The public school board’s centralized grounds department however, hardly has enough resources to remove the hundreds of dying ash trees on its 140 schoolyards – which will soon become a safety hazard.  There is a budget for felling trees...but no budget for replanting or greening.  This is left up to parents, communities and the city.  

This lack of resources for schoolyard greening is not for want of scientific evidence of the community benefits of urban greening and student benefits of schoolyard greening.  

The community network of Ecology Ottawa is supporting the project by lending expertise in naturalization and schoolyard greening. Ecology Ottawa community volunteers will help to water the trees and shrubs throughout the first few summers until plants are well-established.  An initial outreach to local businesses generated a seed fund to help with the first phase of planning – with positive response from the neighbourhood from dentists, to jewellers, to pizza joints.  

A class-by-class facilitated consultation took place at the school in late fall. This was led by schoolyard greening guru Ann Coffey.  Many problems with the yard were identified and many ideas, solutions and proposals for better use of the yard were received.

Students are pleased that they were asked.  Takeo, a grade 8 student commented, “I hope that with this project the yard is going to get more enjoyable for future generations of students here. I would like to experiment with growing grapes on the fence. I think it is possible in this climate.”

A teacher survey and community consultation meeting followed. The project now has an impressive proposed site concept plan. It includes not only new shade trees and green space, but also a play & climbing structure and large scale digital murals that the kids will co-create with a local artist. The quality of planning work has not gone unnoticed -- the project has been selected a top-ten finalist in a cross-Canada outdoor classroom competition. Winner is the project with the most community support (see the call to vote above).

The Green Team has put up their shingles – a Facebook site at    https://www.facebook.com/glashangreeningproject -- and a brand-new web-page at  www.glashangreening.ca.  Poised to launch a direct-ask fundraising campaign as the tulips come out in Ottawa -- they need to raise $250,000 to realize their vision. Grant proposals have gone out -- and hopefully between foundations and corporate community contributions the project will realize its green ambition. Nothing is certain but hopes are running high.

One surprising ask found on the web-site is for in-kind contributions by engineering firms in the area of noise abatement and mitigation. Site assessment of the schoolyard found significant levels of noise both from the Queensway and schoolside arterial roads. Users have gotten used to these conditions -- but the schoolyard greeners would like to see improvements in this dimension as well. They point out that a healthy learning and recreational environment is not compatible with high levels of noise pollution.

Policy Issues:

The fact that the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board does not have sufficient resources for all kinds of school and learning essentials (books, instruments, computers, playgrounds) is pretty well known by parents getting regular requests for top-ups out of private pockets.

With the hard impact of the emerald ash borer now felt across the city, the school board has been forced to find resources to remove hundreds of dying ash trees from school grounds -- as the trees die, the wood rapidly becomes brittle and a safety hazard. However, no resources exist for replanting. Green rumours have it that grounds staff are asking for new resources towards replanting in the 2014-15 budget.  Whether this request survives in the battle against other priorities is an issue to be watched.

But what is not really discussed is that we find ourselves in some kind of structural cul-de sac where there is no good way forward. The fact that the Glashan School Council is looking to raise $250,000 seems out-of-scale with reality. Why should it cost so much to expand a few green spaces in the yard, put in a few trees, raised boxes and a climbing structure? Why should parents have to put in such an enormous effort to raise this extraordinary amount of money?  The answer is that we have been railroaded into so much concern with liability and risk, that the public school board wants to see all physical work done by pre-qualified, fully insured contractors. Nary a child shall be in sight when the asphalt is removed, when the trees are planted (or rather "installed"), lest some accident might happen. No longer can communities, school councils, environmental organizations, teachers and kids roll up their sleeves and improve their environment.

The problem with this situation is two-fold. First of all, going with commercial contracting makes costs sky rocket -- for example, a simple log-bench will cost $1,250, despite the city offering up free logs!

The second problem is that community stewardship over green spaces, pride of place, local improvements are all interconnected....but not connected to the contractors. For the new trees to survive and thrive, the help of the community is needed (summer watering for example). For the kids not to tear off branches, not park their bikes against trees, not to trample shrubs, they need to be taught about nurturing and caring for plants and greenery. How can we expect this when they are disconnected from the planting and schoolyard renewal work by policy design and board practice? How can we expect school custodial staff to care, when grounds maintenance work is outsourced to contractors that roll around once a month? These approaches might work for grey infrastructure, but they are not working for green infrastructure.  

 

About The Author

AngelaKeller-Herzog's picture

Angela used to work in international development for the former Canadian International Development Agency. Just over a year ago, she pulled off a career change, moving from international development to local... More

Comments

Rob

I agree entirely with the writer that communities potentially could be empowered more to do more on their own re tree planting, log installing, and such. There are community building, sense of 'ownership' and care, and even perhaps cost savings advantages as the writer suggests. As well, there may circumstantially be an advantage with respect to timelines and getting things done now and definitely rather than hoping the project will get on a staff worklist at some point, etc. This idea applies I think to improvements both inside and outside a school (e.g. there have been calls in the past to allow school communities to put on a fresh coat of paint and to engage in other work inside of schools as well).
There may be some concerns or hurdles to be addressed however in order to make something like this more often a reality. One is that a poorly done piece of work, done with the best of intents, may require a do-over by staff or create an unexpected liability, either legal or practical. And, ensuring that parent groups are using the right paint, objects are secured or placed in the right way, safety protocols are being observed, etc, might require ongoing liaison and inspections with staff in advance of and during and even after even a small project and simple oversight and admin costs can rapidly accumulate when oversight staff are paid $400 / day or more. A related staff concern will be knowing that if volunteers don't show up to complete the work then staff will be on the hook to deal with whatever they find anyway. Still, there may be intangible advantages to gaining more community involvement as the writer notes.
Another question which would need addressing in a policy which enabled more direct community involvement in design and/or implementation of small projects would be the equity angle. 'Have not' schools are generally those with an absent or partial school council, and greatly reduced volunteerism. Typically, the fewer ESL immigrants, the fewer poor families at a school, the greater the volunteerism available, bestowing yet another advantage on 'have' schools generally, and this is reflected both in fundraising done and in other volunteerism. The connection is not 1:1 but also is quite demonstrable. A policy approach would need to recognize this reality as well and to address it, or otherwise we continue to perpetuate and entrench inequities, which is antithetical to the very purpose and mission of public education. This also could be done I think, with the right policy ideas and protocols worked out.
Generally I agree that very likely more could be done in this area from a policy standpoint. I do think that a lot of policy particulars would need to be carefully worked out to really allow for non-trivially more to be done in this area however.
My suggestion would be that, if this is a widely felt matter in a local school community, would be to raise this at OCASC, the umbrella body representing OCDSB school councils to the board, so that a proposal of some sort might gain support, and get the kinks worked out as a proposal. OCASC reps sit as non-voting members along with Trustees at Committee of the Whole for instance. And, in any event, this is a board-wide matter as a matter of policy. Proponents and OCASC reps could sit with Facilities staff in order to work out a policy proposal. My best practical advice if wishing to see a policy push in this area as a practical matter and not as a particular project one-off. This sort of concern does not get expressed often and to really get a policy developed in this area, as a practical matter, would require demonstrated school councils support and the working out of policy particulars re the many objections which might be thrown at the idea by those not keen on seeing a change.

PS - This sort of e-forum is potentially a super one for the regular dissemination and public inspection of elected official opinion, as well as that of other active citizens. I think that it should be seen as transparency, accountability, and democracy promoting. Bravo!

All the best,

Rob

Rob Campbell
OCDSB Trustee Zone 9 - Rideau-Vanier / Capital

Thank you for commenting Rob. Its great to hear directly from a trustee on an issue like this and for you to share your thoughts and ideas so openly.

And, thank you for the kind words about UnpublishedOttawa.com. It is our hope that this website will serve as a forum to engage Ottawa residents and Canadians in a discussion of new ideas on how to improve our communities, city and country.

Can Angela contact you directly about their project? Your idea sounds like a good one.

Angela Keller-Herzog

Just a follow-up and thank you note to 'Unpublished Ottawa'. After this article was posted on unpublished, the Ottawa Citizen invited me for an op-ed space. That went through, so the piece became 'published' I suppose. Then the CBC morning show took an interest and asked me for an interview. That gave the Glashan Schoolyard Greening project a lot of exposure. So thank you 'Unpublished Ottawa' for making all that possible.
Angela