Spring cleaning heads outdoors at CHS

Spring cleaning heads outdoors at CHS

Standing in the Cumberland High School courtyard they hope to revitalize in the coming months are, from left, junior Ryan Ribero, special education teacher Holly Stowik and junior Scott Smith, who is taking on the project as he works to become an Eagle Scout. (Valley Breeze photo by Meghan Kavanaugh)

CUMBERLAND - Just as the flowers on its tulip trees begin to bloom, the courtyard contained within four walls of Cumberland High School is getting a much-anticipated spring cleaning.

Lancaster's Courtyard, named for chemistry teacher Howard Lancaster, who first led a team of students to beautify the space off the cafeteria in 2003, has deteriorated in appearance and function over the years.

First, Lancaster retired in 2006, ending his class trips to test turbidity and pH levels in the two koi ponds, and to study some of the 30 native Rhode Island plant species.

Then, construction crews commandeered the 6,500-square-foot area as they replaced walls and windows in the courtyard's interior during the school's makeover several years ago.

But thanks to a group of conservation-minded teachers and students armed with rakes, gardening tools and fresh ideas, Lancaster's Courtyard should soon be back to its former glory, and perhaps even a bit better.

Carolyn Dooley, unified arts interdisciplinary coordinator, and special education teacher Holly Stowik have begun organizing the effort to meet after school a few days a week to pick up trash and start landscaping.

"Our goal is to return it to its natural splendor, to revitalize it," Stowik said.

CHS junior Scott Smith has taken the project on as he works toward his Eagle Scout award for Troop 1 Arnold Mills. His friend, junior Ryan Ribero, has joined him to lend a hand.

Stowik, who was among teachers to found the school's Ecology Club and Recycling Club, said she has a vested interest in restoring the space that is still used occasionally for eating lunch, studying, and art and science classes.

So does Dooley, who spoke of the opportunities to connect the art and science curriculums.

"There's so much out there we could use for science illustration in art classes," Dooley said.

In a back corner where a tree once stood too close to the building, a memorial garden for veterans is planned, Stowik said, as well as a few benches and picnic tables, perhaps an incentive for students who can earn a chance to eat lunch outside.

Now that Sodexo oversees the custodial staff, some of whom have kept up with light cleaning of the space, Stowik said, they are interested in seeing a vegetable garden planted for use in the cafeteria and to donate to local food pantries.

A greenhouse has also been discussed, with general composting with leaves and grass. Because the courtyard is enclosed, there are no vermin, only birds. Dooley said after just a bit of cleaning, at least one bird has already started making a home in a birdhouse.

The water pump hoses need to be fixed, and electricity has to be restored to the area's lights, Stowik said, adding they may inquire about solar power.

"It's got a lot of potential," she said, adding that it could be a nice setting for dance and event photographs. "We've got lots of opportunities."

All involved hope they can generate more interest in cleaning up the courtyard so it can be used for learning once again.

Sixty students helped create the "Project Aquatic Research Center" space a decade ago, when Lancaster turned a primarily unused space into an onsite laboratory with the help of fundraising and work from Tranquil Water Gardens.

When construction was completed after Lancaster's retirement, he headed back to clean metal scraps and screws out of the pond, and clean up debris.

"I got it going and I really haven't been back there since," Lancaster said, citing working later hours at his job coupled with the fact that many do not recognize him anymore. "I was very happy to have Holly call me and say they were trying to revitalize the courtyard."

In fact, he said, he was "delighted."

"Even if the teachers don't really use it academically, just to have it," Lancaster said. "To have it look nice, and have it compliment the school."

Ribero said he was always intrigued about the space when he would walk by on his way to class. He said it has already been nice to see the water clearing up as the team makes positive changes.

Completing the project "would kind of be a reflection of students who care about the environment," he said. "It would give Cumberland High School students a little more pride in their school."

Smith said the courtyard has provided the meaningful tie to the community sought when choosing an Eagle Scout project.

"I had actually never been in this courtyard," Smith said. "I understand that I can have a positive impact."

He continued, "What better impact than creating a sustainable and useful addition to Cumberland High School, a school I hope students enjoy."

The clean-up team currently meets Tuesdays and Thursdays after school.

Dooley said volunteers would welcome visits from University of Rhode Island master gardeners, park rangers, or anyone with a background in science or koi ponds, as well as donations of equipment and services.

Anyone interested in joining should contact Dooley or Stowik at the school by calling 401-658-2600.

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