La Salle students learn the importance of ‘going green’

This story is the first in an occasional series on the efforts of Catholic schools to develop environmentally friendly programs and curricula.

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PROVIDENCE – On a warm Sunday a few weeks ago I stood in a garden behind the athletic fields at La Salle Academy with teacher Gregg DeMaria as he gave me an updated grand tour.

I toured the plot of land with him last February. At that time it looked like an abandoned corner of the school's campus, but to DeMaria the small area was rife with possibility.

Fast forward about seven months and he is handing me just-picked yellow and red raspberries grown in a garden tended by 7th and 8th grade students in the school's Pegasus program. Behind us, a structure resembling a small Epcot Center rises out of the earth. Three members of the high school's architecture club work together to finish sealing the seams on DeMaria's newest pride and joy – a passive solar greenhouse.

La Salle Academy's "greening" is officially underway.

Since the beginning of this school year, a core group of about 15 students has been giving up their weekends to gather in a back field of their school and put together the greenhouse. It arrived the day before school started, a $9,000 kit that turned out to be a pallet stacked high with wooden beams, silicon tape for sealing seams and strange-looking hexagonal and pentagonal metal joints – everything DeMaria needed to launch the latest step in his ambitious plan to make La Salle and a La Sallian education "green."

The greenhouse is nearing completion and will ultimately be an impressive feat of architecture and environmentalism. Its temperature is regulated in a variety of ways: window vents open and close in response to temperature gauges, reflective silver panels catch optimum sun and the inside perimeter of the structure will hold large planters and a 1,200 gallon water tank filled with runoff rainwater, both of which will provide insulation. Sun, air, and water are the only elements the greenhouse needs to achieve the optimum environment for growing seedlings.

But the structure itself is only the beginning of the story. The real action will occur when its power is harnessed as a tool to teach La Salle's students and to green La Salle's environment.

With the help of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, 10-15 acres of natural wetland have been identified behind the school. DeMaria plans to begin cultivating seedlings of native plants which will eventually be planted in the wetlands and help to restore the natural beauty and diversity there. "Our ultimate goal here is an urban agricultural restoration project," he said.

Wetland plants and raspberries are not the only plants being grown on this green patch of La Salle's campus. Some students requested that DeMaria grow tea leaves, and when he did they agreed to pick, dry and bag them. And voila, homegrown, all-natural tea bags are being produced at the high school.

DeMaria wants to show the students that sustainable gardening is not solely the purview of aging hippies living on communes: "there's a business side too, an entrepreneurial side," he said. Also growing are the ingredients to what he hopes will someday become salsa, as well as herbs that are being used in the school's cafeteria right now.

DeMaria coordinates academic support programs at the school and teaches classes in architecture and sustainable design. After school, he is a faculty advisor to the architecture club and the mastermind behind La Salle's "Vision for a Sustainable Future" initiative. Last school year, he helped the environmental club establish a school-wide recycling plan that educated the school community about the impact of their recyclable waste..

Education, DeMaria says, has to include an environmental component. "There's a big push for outdoor education. You can't be educated in a bubble."

He hopes the plot of land where the gardens and greenhouse reside will someday be home to an outdoor classroom. Already, some science classes have incorporated the projects into their curriculum, and writing classes have taken advantage of the peaceful garden atmosphere to cure writer's block. Other students are planning to plant peace gardens as a Christian service project.

Another component of the La Sallian gardens and greenhouse is being a good neighbor. The area of the campus they have carved out is directly adjacent to several residential properties. Residents were initially somewhat wary of all the activity going on in what had been a quiet, unused corner of the campus. But, after planting some flowers and hearing DeMaria’s plans, the neighbors came around. One, impressed by what she saw, even nominated DeMaria and his crew for Garden Crusader Award. They won second place.

Teaching students about sustainability with hands-on projects like the greenhouse and the gardens "is really in keeping with the Brothers' mission," DeMaria said. "The mission of the school is providing a good education for working class and poor students, and we see the environmental part as central to the mission."

DeMaria's ideas and enthusiasm for "green" education seem endless, but equally important to note is the pragmatism with which each new endeavor is approached. Any new plan has to make fiscal, educational and environmental sense before it moves forward. "We don't want to just look green, we don't want to just have a greenhouse, we want to be helping the environment," DeMaria said.