(Noah Scialom, Patuxent Publishing / May 1, 2013)

Though Earth Day has come and gone, Hillcrest Elementary School is continuing the green movement through a new and old program.

The school was hosting an official ribbon cutting for its new outdoor courtyard classroom on Thursday, May 9, and will host the Hillcrest Plant Sale and Exchange at the school on Friday.

The ribbon cutting is the culmination of nearly five years of planning and work to build an outdoor classroom where students can not only enjoy the fresh air but also use real world applications of school curriculum.

"A lot of different science units link directly out there," said Clare Walker, a Catonsville resident and Hillcrest parent who played an instrumental role in the courtyard's creation.

Walker said the idea for the courtyard was born in 2008 when the school planned to add a new addition.

She said the addition would be an L-shaped portion of the building, connecting to another L-shaped portion of the building and creating a 7,000 square foot courtyard between the two L's.

"The county planned for that to just be a concrete pad," said Walker, who works as a park naturalist at Patapsco Valley State Park.

She said she and another parent, Mary Weiss, came up with the idea to keep it as green space and after working with Baltimore County, were granted permission to do so.

"We could keep it a grass area ... as long as we would take on the care and maintenance," Walker said.

After installing three raised flower beds used for planning vegetables in 2010, the courtyard began its full transformation in the spring of 2012 when a brick patio and pathway, as well as picnic tables, trees and perennials were added to the area.

Walker said students have harvested a variety of vegetables, from potatoes and lettuce to pumpkins planted in the courtyard's pumpkin patch by the school's kindergartners in May.

"Since those raised beds went in, classrooms have harvested every spring and fall," she said.

"Sometimes, the kids will just go out and they'll collect it (vegetables), and wash it and have it as a snack," Walker said.

She said the courtyard plays an important role in teaching curriculum-related lessons such as decomposition and how to utilize the weather equipment stored there.

It also helps in teaching students to appreciate the environment.

"You can't learn to love nature if you never visit," she said.

According to Deb Neebe, whose two children are in fifth and first grade at Hillcrest, it also allows students a chance to escape the overcrowded hallways inside the school.

"It is so crowded in our school that it gives a little extra space to get the kids out, because they get a little antsy," Neebe said.

Walker and Neebe said they can't wait to show off all of their hard work at the ribbon cutting on Thursday.

"I just think it's great that it's going to be formally recognized," Neebe said.