All text and photos by Jen Cowart
TEAM EFFORT: After studying native plants during the school year, the students in Kelley Oelofse’s eighth grade science classes came out in droves to help plant the new garden at the school. They were assisted that day by Paul Dolan of the DEM and Cheryl Cadwell of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society.
Thanks to the students in Kelley Oelofse’s eighth grade science classes this past school year, Western Hills Middle School has a new kind of classroom.
Oelofse, a garden-lover since childhood, teaches astronomy, physics and earth science at WHMS, but brought botany into her curriculum as well when she helped her class create a native garden that doubles as an outdoor classroom.
She began eyeing the perfect spot for the garden early last year. Located to the right of the school’s main entrance, it was barren and bare.
“There was absolutely nothing here, it was a vacant spot and everyone sees it when they pull up,” Oelofse said. “The soil is harsh but there is good light.”
Oelofse approached Principal Anthony Corrente about putting a native garden there and she found her boss to be very receptive.
“A native garden is so educational,” she said, explaining that native gardens only house plants native to the area, its climate, bugs and animals.
She gave an example of the Lunar Moth, which is a native bug. She explained that native bugs only eat native plants and native animals will eat native bugs. By removing the native plants, it creates a domino effect in the area.
Oelofse and her team of eighth-graders were on a mission to stop the domino effect, beginning at their own school.
“We’re just trying to stop a little bit of it and help a little bit,” she said.
Oelofse’s students, who would soon be off to high school, were happy to be a part of the solution rather than the problem when it came time to leaving their mark on Western Hills.
In order to bring a little bit of botany into her students’ curriculum, Oelofse had the students begin researching plants that were native to Rhode Island and its climate.
"They did pop-up book reports and every student did a different plant,” she said. “We found that we’ve actually destroyed more native habitat and plants in the United States than in the rainforest, and we’ve replaced them with aggressive and invasive alien plants which take over.”
Student Alyssa Ruggieri believes the project will be something future classes can participate in.
“I’m very glad that we’re doing this. We needed a change at our school to make it look better and this project is one that will just keep growing,” she said.
When all of the research was done, and it came time to create the actual garden, Oelofse had the help and support of her principal, the manual labor from her students, and lots of other outside support as well.
“Some of the parents said they’d donate benches,” Oelofse said. “Last year we got a small grant from the Wild Plant Society and this year we got an Earth Day Grant from DEM.”
The Wild Plant Society’s former president, Cheryl Cadwell, was on hand to help out when all of the planting began.
“Kelley did a wonderful job of introducing the kids to the native plants,” Cadwell said. “I love when teachers have this kind of energy and drive. I love how good this looks. There can’t be a better way to get kids to learn.”
Oelofse said that her students already want to do so much more during next school year.
“English classes can come out and write about what they see,” she said. “It’ll be a place where you can meander. It will have a lot of history too.”