Every day is Earth Day for the Cougars of John B. Cary Elementary School in Richmond, VA. This school year, amidst a pandemic and with his staff and students working and learning 100% virtually, Principal Michael Powell established Richmond Public School’s first Eco Campus. Powell’s inspiration for an Eco Campus stems from the writings of Richard Louv, famous in the environmental education field for his 2005 publication Last Child in the Woods, in which Louv speaks about reconnecting children with nature. Powell has named his vision the No Child Left Inside Initiative and has received support from partners including Kiwanis Club, VCU School of Engineering, Maymont Foundation, Science Museum of Virginia, City of Richmond’s Parks and Recreation, and the Valentine Museum.

Fortunately, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay connected with Powell at the opportune time, in February 2020, right before schools shut down due to the pandemic, and when Powell was seeking funding for his project. Alliance’s RiverWise Schools team took action and applied for a ConseRVAtion Fund grant through the Community Foundation with matching support from Richmond’s Department of Public Utilities, to bring the “Heat Island project,” just one piece of the entire Eco Campus, to life.

Designed by partner, Manchester Gardening, the Heat Island project serves as an outdoor learning space. The 187 native plants, 53 shrubs, and 16 trees mimic forest succession with a meadow, understory, and mature trees. This area is intended for staff and students to study the effects of urban heat islands over time as the forest matures. The planted area will be maintained by community partners, HandsOn volunteers, and Cary PTA. This 2,700 square foot project adds tree canopy and green space to the schoolyard to offset paved surfaces around the school. It slows stormwater runoff from nearby sports fields and blacktop, allows it to soak in, and keeps pollution from entering the James River.

Meredeth Dash and Mary Petres of Manchester Gardening, the project manager for this install.

The RiverWise Schools program through Alliance seeks to increase environmental literacy alongside its projects therefore a professional development series for Mr. Powell’s staff was created called “Come Outside Cougars.” Since January 2021, the Alliance’s Meredeth Dash and Ryan Bennett, Cary’s Exceptional Education teacher, co-plan and co-taught six sessions of training for the whole school staff. This virtual series featured guest speakers from the Science Museum of VA and Maymont, and empowered teachers to link urban heat island issues to their lessons using the interactive slides of Jamboard. The Alliance also used the series as a chance to collect responses for a time capsule that will be buried with the trees planted on campus. Staff, students, families, and the whole school community were encouraged to share their reflections about the pandemic, social unrest and being in quarantine.

Cary’s new Eco Campus was celebrated with a livestream event on Earth Day 2021 with First Lady Pam Northam in attendance. Community partners, including Meredeth Dash, VA Environmental Education Specialist with the Alliance, spoke at the event. Attendees were able to tour the Heat Island Project and learn how it promotes environmental stewardship, boosts experiential learning and academic progress for Cary students.

Meredeth Dash speaking at Earth Day livestream

With the Heat Island Project installed, and staff training complete, the Alliance looks forward to seeing staff and students return to school so that they may explore the new space not just through a video or a screen, but in real life, where we hope to bring not only their senses alive but their sense of wonder and curiosity of the natural world. A world where every day can be Earth Day.