'Project Birdland' transforms Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School

Ben Graham-Putter, of Guterrez Studio, unveils a bird feeder designed by a student at Francis Scott Key School and built by the studio for an outdoor habitat lab at the school.
Ben Graham-Putter, of Guterrez Studio, unveils a bird feeder designed by a student at Francis Scott Key School and built by the studio for an outdoor habitat lab at the school. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

School doesn't start for another week, but 6-year-old Kyle Schuller spent Sunday afternoon running around in front of Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School. The soon-to-be first-grader watered some freshly planted shrubs in a "habitat lab" that will soon welcome him and other students to school each day.

More than 130 people joined Kyle for the community build day at the school in Locust Point. Within hours, they had transformed the grounds by planting more than 3,000 shrubs, perennials, grasses and trees along Fort Avenue.


A few days earlier, the front entrance of the school building consisted mainly of grass. Now, in addition to the lush greenery, there are signs planted throughout the habitat, telling students about the birds and insects that are expected to soon call the area home.

"It'll allow kids to have more educational experiences outdoors," said Kyle's mother, Cindy Schuller. "And this really brightens the neighborhood."

The initiative, called Project Birdland, was launched about two years ago. The landscape architecture and planning firm Mahan Rykiel was charged with designing the streetscape and roof gardens for the nearby Anthem House, a mixed-use development in Locust Point.

But the company hit a snag — it couldn't replace all the trees that were removed during the development, as required by the state. With the project facing fees, research director Isaac Hametz and the firm proposed taking the greenery to Francis Scott Key.

Now, students will be able to use the space as an "outdoor classroom," principal Corey Basmajian said. They'll water the plants, pull out weeds and analyze what kinds of wildlife it attracts. The habitat will be a "central hub" for the science curriculum.

"Outside of learning that will take place here, it's really beautiful," Basmajian said. "This project will help boost confidence that this school is headed in a direction that families want to be part of."

The school has already based lessons on the habitat. Avian urban ecologist Christine Brodsky worked with students last year to study how the area would affect local birds. Brodsky, who led kids in a bird watch on Sunday, said she hopes students now realize that "cities are places for nature."

Sixth- and eighth-graders took part in a competition to design birdhouses out of Popsicle sticks and hot glue. Two winning prototypes were used as inspiration by designers at Gutierrez Studios.


Ryan Carver, the studios' head designer, unveiled the final products Sunday. He said the two completed birdhouses — made of wood and painted steel instead of Popsicle sticks — stayed true to the concept and intended function of the student prototypes. Inside the birdhouses are 3D-printed nests that students can remove and study.

"The birds can live in those two houses and we'll hear the noise of birdies tweeting," Kyle said. "I think this backyard might bring more kids to this school and that'll bring me more friends."

Mayor Catherine Pugh and other officials attended the community event. Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello said it provided "great momentum" before the start of the school year.

"The first thing kids will see when they get back to school is this habitat," he said. "It sends a message that the community really cares about them."

Children rode around in wheelbarrows and helped plant greenery as music played. Nine-year-old Ava Karpewicz said the landscape looks much better than before, and makes her excited to head back to school for fourth grade.

Her mother, Erin Karpewicz, is a member of the parent-teacher organization, which raised money to assist with the project.


"We live in the city, so we don't have a front yard," Karpewicz said. "It's wonderful that she can come outside with her class."