For years, Principal Jael Samuels knew that something needed to be done about the asphalt eye-sore behind her school, Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle.
The concrete space was heavily trafficked by students entering and exiting the building, especially the kindergarten students who play in a fenced area at the end of the courtyard. Often littered by trash and debris that overflows from the nearby dumpster, this area was not serving the needs of the school or the community.
Principal Samuels knew a renovation of this courtyard would come with challenges. That’s why she and other leaders from the school approached Southeast Community Development Corporation (CDC) for guidance and support.
Molly McCullagh, deputy director of Southeast CDC, was up for the task. Noting the slight slope and topography of the area, McCullagh and her team envisioned a rain garden that doubled as an outdoor educational space.
A rain garden is a shallow depression that is filled with native, moisture-loving vegetation. These gardens act as sponges that soak of nutrient and chemical pollution running through the city, keeping them from entering stormwater drains and ultimately polluting waterways. By replacing what would otherwise be asphalt, rain gardens also create cooling effects that cut down on urban heat islands.
To help bring their plan to life, Southeast CDC contacted the local nonprofit, Blue Water Baltimore, for assistance. The nonprofit applied for and received funding from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Small Watershed Grants program—which is administered by our partners at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)—to support this project.
In summer 2021, a crew from Baltimore Blue water began removing nearly 4,000 square feet of asphalt behind the school. Later in spring 2023, on Earth Day, 80 students, assisted by their teachers and adult volunteers, planted over 400 plants to create the rain garden. The project included the addition of grass “steps” to accommodate the sloped landscape and filter the stormwater coming down the courtyard.
Because of its location, the green infrastructure project provided a unique opportunity to engage the community.
“I can't tell you how many times when I was out here [at the rain garden], people just walked by saying ‘thanks!’ and giving appreciation,” said Patrick McMahon, Blue Water Baltimore’s Restoration Project Manager.
McMahon also recalls a significant change in temperature before and after installing the rain garden.
“I can personally attest to when I was out here paving this with the crew, it was scorching,” said McMahon. “And as soon as we got that asphalt up…it was significantly cooler.”
While the end goal was reached, it wasn’t without obstacles. To ensure the safety of students who walk through the site to exit the school building, construction schedules had a strict 2:30 p.m. stop time each day. The site also had utility lines underground that the crew had to work around.
Although led by Southeast CDC and constructed by Blue Water Baltimore, there was a collection of other community partners that contributed to this project. A wide variety of nonprofits, environmental funders, Baltimore City departments, engineers and landscape professionals came together to transform the school’s outdoor space.
“That just shows the power of working together,” says Blue Water Baltimore’s Director of Restoration, Darin Crew.
Another important partner was the Tench Tilghman Green Team. This resilient student-teacher group joined Southeast CDC for an education summer camp, and used their knowledge to help design and maintain the rain garden.
“They came every day for a week, toured other rain gardens in the area, learned about the watershed and native gardens, and they helped to conceptualize what this space could become,” said McCullagh.
With phase one of green infrastructure complete at Tench Tilghman, this is only the beginning. Southeast CDC and school administration now have their sights set on phase two: a Pre-K nature playscape.
To ensure that younger students can play safely, this site will include low climbing elements, mounds and other age-appropriate equipment placed atop a soft flooring. Located on the backside of the school—directly next to the rain garden—the playscape will incorporate green elements such as vining and marine garden plants to brighten the space and decrease stormwater runoff.
The completion of these two green infrastructure projects could help Tench Tilghman reach the “green school” status granted through the Maryland Green Schools Program. This program recognizes schools that provide students with educational opportunities that empower them to reduce their environmental impact.
“This is something to be proud of,” said Crew.