A Rain Garden to Inspire Students and Future Conservationists

“It makes kids feel important. It teaches responsibility, to remember to water it and care for it.”

Karis from Sylvester Middle School spoke about their school’s rain garden, built through a partnership with the school, Washington Green Schools, ECOSS and the City of Burien. This garden, which started as a component of stormwater curriculum, has grown into something much more — thanks to the vision of the partners and the students.

Plants waiting to be planted in a rain garden. Photo © Hannah Letinich

Katelen Phelen, the eighth-grade science teacher at Sylvester Middle, worked with educators from Washington Green Schools to develop a stormwater curriculum unit that discussed the impact of everyday human behaviors and highlighted green-stormwater solutions. The unit culminated in students working in groups to create their own stormwater solution for the Sylvester Middle School campus. Stormwater professionals from the City of Burien, Washington Green Schools, ECOSS and King County attended the final presentations and provided feedback.

Mary Eidmann of the City of Burien, who originally approached Phelen about the demonstration rain-garden project, was in attendance. “Some groups had strikingly creative ideas for their rain garden solutions, such as native bee or bird habitat and growing food to be served in the cafeteria,” said Eidmann. 

Following the presentations, the top stormwater solution was selected as a project to be implemented on April 19, 2017, as part of the Earth Day Day of Service. The partnership landed on a rain garden, incorporating seating areas for science classes as well as a cistern into the design.

Students plant in the rain garden at Sylvester Middle School. Photo by Washington Green Schools

On the Day of Service, students and volunteers from Sounders, Starbucks, Washington Green Schools and the City of Burien worked together to install a rain garden and cistern, plant native plants, remove invasive plants, and paint a mural designed by Matthew Wentz. It was a wet day — but the students worked hard and took pride in the project. Eidmann says that one eighth-grader actually walked up to Phelen and asked they could do more things like this.

In reflecting on the project, students and partners highlighted the value of collaboration in ensuring this project became a reality. “I liked how everyone worked together to make this happen, we were all doing something,” says Violeta who was part of the eighth-grade class that designed the rain garden.

Students at the planting day. Photo by Washington Green Schools

Since that planting day, the students continue to value this rain garden for the natural benefits it provides — including beauty, diversity of life and supporting the health of the creek. “It’s good for water. It absorbs water and makes it pure. This makes the soil and plants grow better,” says Aiden P., an eighth-grader this year.

But the space has become something more — a calming space to relax, hang out, connect with one another and think as well as a space to remember. “The rain garden is good for people remembering Eli, a girl that went to our school that got shot this year,” says Marcus.

The education sign at the Sylvester Middle School rain garden. Photo by Washington Green Schools

In March, the school held a small ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the installation of an educational, multi-lingual sign designed by students as well as recognize the students and partners involved in the project. In addition to the school, Washington Green Schools, ECOSS, and the City of Burien, The Boeing Company and The Nature Conservancy joined in the event as each organization provided funding to make the project possible. 

Throughout the event, people spoke about the value of the garden for the school and the community today — including its contributions to green-infrastructure education and building community connections. But their real focus was on what the project could mean for the future. 

As Eidmann put it, “I hope the rain garden inspires not only these students, but future generations who will have access to it at Sylvester Middle School. Field projects like this one often spark a young person’s interest in science. It is possible we might read about one of their contributions to fighting climate change in 20 years!”