Feature stories

Up on the roof, they’re down on the farm

Manhattan schools take their gardens to the top

Gardens such as the ones at PS 41 are spreading out across the rooftops. Miller Photography

Gardens such as the ones at PS 41 are spreading out across the rooftops.

PS 41

Students show state Daniel Squadron and Scott Stringer how to plant.Miller PhotographyStudents show state Sen. Daniel Squadron (center) and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer how to plant. The lavender was blooming and the bees were buzzing on the opening day of PS 41’s Greenroof Environmental Literacy Laboratory: a 10,000-square-foot farm on top of a West Village school that’s making kids and teachers very happy.

“We’re even putting up a bat house,” said Susan Schenker, the school’s chapter leader, library teacher and literacy instructor. Schenker was among the staff members, community group representatives and elected officials who attended the opening ceremony on Sept. 21, an event generating enthusiasm that has spread into October and November.

Susan Schenker and Maggie Monaco show students some plants.Miller PhotographyChapter Leader Susan Schenker and art teacher Maggie Monaco, who is Schenker's daughter, show students some plants. “Warm, overcast or cold, the kids are excited to be up there with their teacher,” said Vicki Sando, a former PS 41 parent, gardening maven and a volunteer science teacher assistant who was subsequently hired by the PTA as a science-enrichment teacher. The longstanding school-community member was key in the farm-to-negotiations-table project, working as a bridge between teachers, administrators and the environmental laboratory organization.

A group of teachers created curriculum and worked with the organization to present the needs of students and educators. They also worked with an architect to design the layout of walkways, with the priorities on safety and classroom management.

Agriculture is already serving as a springboard for many lessons, ranging from literacy to art, from environmental science to social studies. Business is in the mix, too, as the fledgling urban farmers get ready to incubate chicks and ducklings in partnership with an organic food co-op. They will also sell dried herbs and other produce in fundraising projects.

Now educators and parents from other schools are coming to PS 41 for advice on how to create such a project: The word on the street is that it all starts up on the roof.

Robert Simon Complex

A 4th-grader from the Earth Science School serves up kale salad.Miller PhotographyA 4th-grader from the Earth Science School serves up kale salad. “One day we might look back and say, ‘Remember when New York City roofs were just painted black and were hot and no one used them?’” said Abbe Futterman, a science teacher at the Earth Science School in Manhattan.

The school is one of a trio, along with PS 64 and Tompkins Square MS, which comprises the Robert Simon Complex in the Lower East Side. The entire school community is the beneficiary of what Futterman calls “the new kind of beneficial, green productive roof” that is beginning to sprout across the city. The students, as they tend their farm under the sky, may well be among the generation that can barely remember the tarry wastelands that once topped the urban landscape.

The new roofs such as this one, which was spearheaded by the Earth Science School in conjunction with elected officials and that opened at an Oct. 12 ceremony, are inspiring learning. At the complex, kindergartners, who study plant parts and their purposes, are in charge of the roots, bulbs and tubers on the 2,400-square-foot expanse of greenery. The 1st- and 2nd-graders plant the peas and beans: The fast-growing plants lend themselves to those grades’ study of measuring and counting. Plus, the kids are really into dissecting lima beans.

Herbs are the perfect focus for 3rd-graders studying Native American cultures. Bees are the thing for middle-grade kids studying pollination. On it goes so that the rooftop farm is producing relevant lessons for all grades in myriad subjects. Not to mention all the physical work involved — raking, weeding and turning compost — which is good for the humans tending the vegetables.

“We’re up there a lot!” said Futterman.

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