Lindsay Peyton
Rezmie Sath was one of a number of eighth grade students who rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty to build a rain garden at Sylvester Middle School in in honor of Earth Day. She said planting in the garden was fun.

Sylvester Students Dig Sustainability

By Lindsay Peyton

Sylvester Middle School students rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty – literally – in the name of preventing pollution and saving the environment in honor of Earth Day.

During a service day on campus on Wednesday, April 19, eighth graders joined with volunteers from Washington Green Schools, Sounders FC’s RAVE Foundation, Barker Landscape Architects, Starbucks and the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle to install a rain garden and outdoor classroom on campus.

The project started a year ago, when Mary Eidmann, the City of Burien’s stormwater outreach specialist, emailed the science teachers at Sylvester to see if anyone would be interested in taking action to protect local watersheds.

Eidmann explained to teachers that students could make a major difference by planting a rain garden -- a low spot that collects runoff from showers, allowing stormwater to be absorbed into the ground.

These gardens help prevent flooding and erosion – and also naturally filter the water to reduce pollution in creeks and streams.

Katelen Phelan, an eighth grade science teacher at Sylvester, jumped at the opportunity.

She created a unit for her class, teaching all about stormwater and how Sylvester is directly responsible for the local watershed, since the campus is bordered by Miller Creek.

Eidmann visited the class to explain to students the importance of protecting the watershed. “Miller Creek has a high rate of salmon that are dying due to stormwater pollution,” she said. “Everything that happens on campus goes right into the creek and then right into Puget Sound.”

Phelan then asked her students to solve a problem: “How can we filter toxic rain water at Sylvester?”

Students presented possible solutions to their class and a panel of stormwater experts.
 Most thought that building a rain garden would be the best answer.

In the meantime, Eidmann learned that both Washington Green Schools and the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle were looking for a school outreach project.

“It was perfect timing,” Eidmann said.

Meredith Lohr, executive director of Washington Green Schools, helped coordinate additional volunteers from Sounders FC’s RAVE Foundation and Starbucks and secured funding from Boeing and the Nature Conservancy.

“We all helped them turn their dreams into a reality by installing this garden,” Lohr said.

She attended the service day at the school. “The kids are getting a chance to dig in the soil and learn about native plants – and they’re loving it,” she said.

This garden is Washington Green Schools’ first project in the Highline district.

The space features a large cistern to collect rainwater, as well as a low dip in the landscape where stormwater can collect. An array of native plants are growing in the space, and a circle of large rocks will provide students with a place to sit during outdoor classroom sessions.

Phelan plans to bring her class to the space often. “This garden is increasing the biodiversity at Sylvester,” she said. “We can see more birds, learn from them, see and appreciate an ecosystem.”

Principal Kyle Linman commended all of the volunteers for coming together from various groups to join students and build the garden.

“We’re getting this amazing outcome,” he said. “It’s going to be the most gorgeous piece of property on campus when it matures. It will be used a lot by the science teachers.”

Eidmann is confident that the campus’ rain garden will serve as an example in the community – and inspire local businesses, residents and other schools to follow suit.

“We’re hoping the kids will bring their families here and teach them about it,” she said. “And hopefully the science students will keep their hands in the dirt and keep learning out there. Students are great advocates, because they’re so passionate.”

Eidmann added that service days like this make a lasting impact.

“When kids are exposed to hands-on science, that’s when they get that spark to be interested in the subject,” she said. “They bring that energy back into the classroom. You never know which one of them will grow up to become an environmental scientist and do something really awesome.”

For more information about Sylvester Middle School, visit www.highlineschools.org/sylvester.

To learn more about Burien’s stormwater outreach efforts, visit www.burienwa.gov/waterschool.

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