When Nancy Dimitriades moved from her position as first grade teacher at St. Paul’s School into a new role in the science department, she had a vision. And it started with the underutilized empty courtyard beyond the doors of the science lab. This central spot, visible from just about every window throughout the building in the Lower School, could become an amazing outdoor learning space.

“The space needed lots of love and attention, and fortunately the school had administrators who were very supportive of the idea,” explains Nancy. With a little help from some strategic partners, including the school community of teachers, parents, and students as well as local business Edible Eden, the St. Paul’s School Community Garden transformed the courtyard into a beloved spot on campus.

Today, the Community Garden is filled with plants and animals. There’s a greenhouse, raised beds, fruit trees, blueberry hill, and, depending on the season, all kinds of fruits and veggies. Eight chickens live in the coop and there are 3 ducks in the pond alongside a tortoise and turtle. (Cool) fact: This lovely courtyard was recently recognized by the National Audubon Society as a bird-friendly garden. Everyone looks forward to visits from Nancy’s pet pig Lincoln who always seizes the opportunity to eat ripe tomatoes right off the vine if he can get to them. But most importantly, the garden is filled with people!

“We built the garden with the idea that it would grow with the children,” explains Nancy. And it certainly has. During their years in the Lower School, students are digging, starting seeds in the greenhouse, transporting seedlings to the garden, and picking the bounty once it has grown. Students stop by in the morning to water and feed and chickens and ducks and take care of the baby chicks.

Older students come back for science projects, service days, and just to visit. One group of Upper School students built the chicken coop and another crafted the duck house as part of a senior project. Next on the to-do list? Students are building a living roof for the chicken coop to keep the chickens cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and to keep the flies away.

“It’s really a place not just to learn science, but to nurture your spirit,” says Nancy. This is evident in one of the garden’s newest additions–a patch of kindness rocks designed by students from all over campus. And the work being done here transcends science for the whole school. There are art projects and storywalks. One of the beds is a dedicated Victory Garden in connection with a high school history class on World War 2. There’s always a Three Sisters Garden made up of corn, squash, and beans which becomes an integral part of the 2nd grade unit on Native Americans.

Many of the best ideas that keep the garden growing and changing are generated by the students themselves. When Nancy started an after-school science club back in 2015, a 3rd grade student arrived with some seeds for the greenhouse and an important question: Why aren’t we growing vegetables for our Lunches for the Hungry program? The next week, the club started planting in the greenhouse for exactly this purpose. Now bags of cool-weather crops and fresh eggs are sent to Manna House along with the sack lunches students pack each month. “You see kids come alive in different areas. Kids can take on a leadership role when they come into the garden. There’s a special spot for everyone to build on their success,” says Nancy.

“The Community Garden is a symbol of cooperation within the St. Paul’s community,” said Lower School Head Dr. Bryan Powell. “Middle School students help to tend it.  Upper School students helped to build the chicken and duck enclosures.  Lower School students are in the garden often for lessons and egg gathering.  The garden comes to life each year and adds vibrancy and excitement to the Lower School and beyond.””The Community Garden is a symbol of cooperation within the St. Paul’s community,” said Lower School Head Dr. Bryan Powell. “Middle School students help to tend it.  Upper School students helped to build the chicken and duck enclosures.  Lower School students are in the garden often for lessons and egg gathering.  The garden comes to life each year and adds vibrancy and excitement to the Lower School and beyond.”

Nancy is certainly creating these unique experiences in the garden, and, from what we hear, growing some pretty delicious cherry tomatoes, too.

This article is part of our school partner profile series. To learn more about St. Paul’s School, visit their profile in our independent school directory. Or better yet, join them for their Spring Preview Day on Friday, May 11! Photos provided by St. Paul’s School.