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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

North Shore residents build outdoor classroom

Students, parents, teachers and community members gather to

Students, parents, teachers and community members gather to construct an outdoor classroom at North Shore Middle School in Glen Head. (May 8, 2010) Credit: Jessica Damiano

I spent a few hours at the North Shore Middle School in Glen Head on Saturday, wearing my Cornell Cooperative Extension hat (T-shirt, actually), along with some 50 community  members, students and parents in an astonishing display of what can be accomplished when everyone pitches in.

To save money, the school's PTA took a leap of faith and asked community members to just show up, tools in hand, to construct an outdoor classroom from materials purchased from local suppliers. I have to admit I was a bit concerned about low turnout. We are, after all, a generation of overstressed, overworked parents with way too many obligations.

I didn't conduct a head count, but there certainly were close to 50 people working at the site at intervals throughout the day. As some left, others arrived, with many sticking around the entire day.

After working on the unadorned grassy incline for four hours the day before, work began at 8 a.m., using a borrowed excavator and tools brought by the school's neighbors for what quickly became regarded as a modern-day barn-raising.

A heightened sense of community filled the group as they worked -- and they did WORK! The kids were no slackers, either, digging and raking, moving bricks and setting stones into place with mallets. The project gave new meaning to the word "teamwork."

Four Nicolock walls were built into the hill, stadium-seating style, and completed by 12:30, under the direction of architect Sanford Berger, who also donated his time and plans for the project. Then work began on the teacher's platform using bricks "sold" during fundraisers throughout the year and engraved with donors' names and sentiments.

I was asked to design the landscape. I decided to start with a pond at the bottom of the hill, which could be quaint, but which was adorned only with a misplaced weeping Japanese maple, some tiny hostas and two or three unidentifiable plants.

Because cost is an issue, I became excited when I spied a thick layer of overcrowded daylilies against one of the school walls. I assembled a team of kids, parents and teachers, and within minutes, we relocated the maple to the opposite side of the pond and removed all the other plants. Next, we dug up and divided about a dozen of the daylilies and transplanted them  around the pond along with a more attractive placement of the existing plants. The result? A charming water accent, landscaped completely for free. What's more, the kids got a lesson in recycling, as well as daylily division. Score!

Planting Day will happen in a couple of weeks, along with another appeal for volunteers. This time, we'll flank both sides of the seating area with an allee of Ilex and repeat that theme by planting tow more -- one on each side of the teacher's platform, surrounded by more of those daylilies.

And we'll plant a shady 300-square-foot triangle bed with a few hundred Ajuga groundcover plants.

There's also an arbor in a shady spot beneath a tree that needs gussying up. I'm thinking we'll plant a climbing hydrangea on the shadiest side and probably a clematis on the opposite trellis.

It just goes to prove the old adage that many hands do make light work.

Above, North Shore Middle School principal Marc Ferris and students try out the new seating area in the newly constructed outdoor classroom, while displaying bricks purchased with donations. The donors' names are engraved on the bricks. (Photo by Jessica Damiano / May 8, 2010)


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