“Isn’t it awesome?” says Dr. Patricia Drummond, principal of Hamilton Elementary/Middle School, as she stands in the courtyard garden next to the school’s front entrance.

Around her, teams of young students are investigating bugs as part of their environmental education class with teacher Scott Hartman. Every ten minutes or so, small groups rotate at brightly colored tables. Some are assembling “bug snacks” from veggies, spreads, and pretzel sticks. Others are observing bugs with magnifying glasses. Some are creating art. Others squeal as they identify insects in books. One team builds a giant tower out of ‘tree cookies.’

(cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny (cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny (cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny

Everyone is moving — and learning.

“As a school that serves so many students, it can sometimes feel crowded inside the hallways. Giving students a chance to get outside, breathe the fresh air and spread out is a huge part of helping them grow as learners,” said Dr. Drummond. Hamilton, a neighborhood zoned school in Northeast, currently serves more than 700 students.

(cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny(cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny

In addition to table space, the garden houses a raised garden beds used by different classes, “tree trunk” tic-tac-toe boards, bright mosaics, garden stones created by students, tools, and a small greenhouse. An “educational habitat” that invites kids to come learn, play — and dig in the dirt. 

(cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny (cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny

It’s not unusual to hear a chicken clucking or excited laughter coming from the school’s parking lot either. Tucked at one end of the parking lot is an amazing outdoor classroom space (20 feet by 100 feet!) utilized by older students. The lush garden has benches, shed with a living roof (also known as a green roof), greenhouse and chicken coop. You follow the nature path through a pollinator garden to get to the classroom space. The space was created from community support and grants.

(cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny

Like the garden in the front of the school, everything is painted bright colors. Much like flowers attract butterflies, it’s hard for kids to stay away from the space and contain their excitement! Many students participate in an after school gardening club so they can get more time outside in the gardens.

(cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny

The development of Hamilton’s environmental education program — which is truly unique to the school — has really been driven by Dr. Drummond and Mr. Hartman, the Environmental Science Teacher & School Garden Coordinator. As long as the weather permits, Mr. Hartman has his students outside. Classes focus on environmental education but also encompass core areas like math, science, and language arts. Students even participate in nutrition lessons and learn about hydraulics as part of their experience.

(cool) schools: Hamilton Elementary/Middle School - (cool) progeny

(Yes, they do cook what they grow! We know what you’re wondering…)

What does Mr. Hartman love most about the program?

“Kids are rarely outside, by themselves, exploring a nature space,” said Mr. Hartman. “Our program gives kids that chance.”

A nature oasis in a big city. Powered by kids, for kids. Now, that’s really (cool).

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Photos by Laura Black.