At RPCS, Students are Seeing Green

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Students in the backwoods at RPCS.

This past Monday, on an unseasonably warm day for December, I was led on an environmental tour that followed a crushed gravel and dirt trail through five acres of woodlands, allowing me to witness up close 300-year-old trees, a spring-fed stream, and the remnants of a farm homestead believed to date to the 19th century. Even more unusual than the 65 degree weather on this early December ramble was the fact that I didn’t have to leave Baltimore to take it. In fact, the entire tour took place within the boundaries of a Baltimore city school campus, proffered by an enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable environmental educator. 

My scenic, woodland walk began and ended at Roland Park Country School (RPCS). Never having been to the campus before, I knew little about the independent college preparatory K-12 school for girls other than that its students wear blue jumpers and skirts, and that prospective parents and their daughters are invited to coffee with select school faculty. But, clearly, there’s a whole other side to the school that’s, literally, thriving.

The entrance to this outdoor wonderland begins near an exit at the back of the building. Maybe that’s why they call it the backwoods. Passing through the back doors and some enormous industrial-looking cisterns (used to capture and filter rain water), my tour guide, RPCS’s environmental education and sustainability coordinator Martha Barss, proudly pointed out a few large mounds of composting material. When she gushed as describing the black silk-like texture to which the composted material turns, I knew I was with a true environmental enthusiast. Next we arrived at a quaint mosaic-decorated sign, courtesy of the school’s art department, that reads RPCS Backwoods.

That’s where the outdoor adventure at RPCS really begins. With most of the leaves off the trees, the Roland Park Stream, which meanders through the entire five-acre backwoods plot, was in clear view that day. It made a perfect backdrop for what Barss accurately describes as a phenomenal resource that inspires poetry writing, photography, “music walks” and, of course, hands-on science lessons.

In my hour-long walk through the backwoods, I saw countless evidence of the inviting type of science lessons that arouse curiosity about the natural world. Though the lower school students were busy rehearsing for their upcoming holiday music program the day I visited, I could imagine them sitting on the stumps—remnants of fallen trees that had been turned into pint-sized stools. As for the other fallen trees in the backwoods, they’re not just dead and forgotten. They’re cleared from the trail and allowed to rot, so students can see fungi that grows on them and examine the decomposition process. Some living trees bore silver bands around them. Sixth graders are involved in a dendrology project sponsored by the Smithsonian that periodically measures the diameter of the trees to determine the impact of climate change on their growth. Suddenly, I wanted to be back in middle school.

While we walked over a wooden bridge, Barss pointed out the relatively flat area below, which RPCS is attempting to restore as wetlands, and described ongoing efforts involving students to reduce the invasive species that threaten the backwood’s delicate ecosystem. In fact, the backwoods provides fodder for questions related to environmental sustainability. As students matriculate into higher grades, the inquiries become increasingly sophisticated.

“We want our seniors to think about things like ‘How does environmental policy get formed?’” Barss said.

As I walked to my car, thoroughly invigorated by my early morning jaunt through the woods, I marveled at the commitment RPCS has made to real-world environmental education and appreciation. Even where space is limited, signs of it thrive: RPCS’s new “urban meadow,” in which students recently dug spots for 1,900 plants, would otherwise be dead space in the parking lot. The butterfly garden, where monarchs feed each fall before taking flight to Mexico, is squeezed into the very edge of campus. And the vegetable garden, still containing lush green produce, shares space with the playground. Clearly, where there’s a commitment to environmental education, there’s a way to make it happen—even in an urban campus.

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