A week before school let out this month, fifth-graders at Immaculate Conception School, in Towson, had their hands in the dirt, plucking out weeds and planting 750 native plant species on school grounds.
The planting, located at the base of a hill on campus, is designed to slow and trap the water that runs from the property when it rains. As part of the school's environmental literacy lesson, students learn what stormwater runoff is and how trash and chemicals on school grounds will eventually reach Chesapeake Bay.
This spring, Immaculate Conception was added to the Maryland Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education's Green Schools list, which recognizes environmental education and stewardship at schools. The nonprofit, founded in 1985, also provides professional development for teachers.
The group's top sponsors include Constellation Energy, BioInteractive, Environmental Concern Inc., Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, Green Port of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.
The Immaculate Conception community is proud of its achievement and the four years of work that stands behind it, principal Madeline Meaney said.
"One of our missions is to protect the environment for our children and our children's children," Meaney said.
With three years ahead of them at Immaculate Conception, which enrolls students in pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade, the fifth-graders will be able to see the plants in the garden grow, elementary science teacher Cindy Fitzgerald said. They'll be able to see a reduction in stormwater runoff, and they'll return to the garden later to identify the plant species, which grow naturally in the Towson area.
"They'll see the investment of their labor and how it pays off," Fitzgerald said.
Schools qualify for the Green Schools program by submitting an application to the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, showing real-world instruction about environmental issues, professional development, student-driven sustainability practices, and a partnership with an environmental center, among other requirements. A certification is good for four years,
Immaculate Conception took about a year to get its application together, in which school officials highlighted environment education and sustainable programs, such as recycling programs, from the past four years.
Four years ago, sixth-grade students at the school first started taking trips to the NorthBay Adventure Center, in Cecil County, a facility on Chesapeake Bay that serves 10,000 students a year through teaching a state-approved environment curriculum for sixth-graders, according to the facility's website.
The week-long program gives Immaculate Conception students a hands-on look at the bay's ecosystem, cementing knowledge they learn in the classroom, Fitzgerald said.
The trip to the bay also gave students a chance to experience an environment that is different than suburban Towson, middle school science teacher Holly Rainville said. Students even got a chance to wade in Chesapeake Bay.
In addition to education, the school's student council is active in ensuring efficient recycling practices for paper and plastic at the school, Fitzgerald said. Student activity is the driving force behind the school's environmentally friendly designation, middle school science teacher Rena Collector said.
"It's their work allowing us to get this award," Collector said.
Environmental literacy, or understanding the basics of how an ecosystem and watershed works, is being taught on some level to all age groups at the school, according to Fitzgerald.
It is also being incorporated across departments. For example, students learned about the recently-planted rain garden in class, then designed art explaining how it works. In computer class, the students put elements of the art together to create a digital piece that will be turned into a sign.
The school also pushes a "no waste" message by involving students in upcycling old items. For example, in the winter the school held a clothing drive to provide warm items for people at Our Daily Bread and Sarah's Hope in Baltimore City.
In conjunction with Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia last September, the school held a shoe drive, during which it collected old but usable shoes, which were distributed to 26 countries.
The school will continue to focus on environmental literacy, Fitzgerald said. Next spring the school will plant a butterfly garden.
Her students also have orange buckets at the ready, filled with magnifying glasses and other instruments, so that on nice days she can take them outside and form a portable outdoor classroom.