Germantown community gardeners plan to beautify grammar school

To an excited group of Germantown residents, the empty expanse of grass and concrete at the John B. Kelly Elementary School on Pulaski Avenue is looking more and more like a blank canvas.

Armed with a service grant from Philadelphia’s Community Design Collaborative (CDC), Germantown’s Hansberry Garden and Nature Center could soon start an overhaul of the school’s spacious, but undeveloped, grounds.

Their work could bring about a sustainable garden, new playground and outdoor educational opportunities.

Last year, HGNC board member and “Kelly Green” project leader Dennis Barnebey and others envisioned the potential impact a service grant from the CDC, which awards pro bono predevelopment design services to nonprofits. This gives the organizations access to the expertise of architects, including landscape architects, they could not otherwise afford.

Their grant request emphasized the current lack of outdoor amenities at the 40-year-old, 760-student elementary school.

So, Kelly School and HGNC stated they were “hoping to create a major redesign and reconstruction of the very large playground and yard space that surrounds the school,” provide a “healthier” place for the students, teach environmentally sustainable practices and “help carry out our mission of fostering stewardship of our immediate environment.”

The only barrier to receiving the grant – worth about $60,000 in planning time and service over the next six months – was a $1,000 fee, which the Southwest Germantown Neighbors Association donated.

The first planning meeting

On Tuesday afternoon, Kelly School Principal Fatima Rogers and several teachers welcomed a group of project volunteers, headed by Barnebey, for an initial meeting on the Kelly Green project.

Attendees included HGNC board member Phyllis Ford, HGNC board President and Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) faculty member Victoria Mehl and Antoinette Arter, who was there on behalf of state Rep. Rosita Youngblood. Also joining in were Southwest Germantown Neighbors co-chairs Bruce Marshall and Leroy Eldridge.

They offered their ideas for the developing plans and, in mulling potential safety and security issues, discussed the extent of control the school should exert over after-hours community usage to ensure, as Barnebey noted, the space doesn’t become “dangerous and accessible to the wrong element.”

The planning process will continue throughout the coming months, with a CDC design team to visit the school and discuss ideas with the Kelly Green task force. Then, an all-day architectural session will take place in conjunction with the American Institute of Architects; two teams of professional landscape architects, working with task force members and others, will each develop a specific plan.

The plan will be presented May 10 to a panel including representatives of the school district, Water Department and Parks and Recreation. Community members are invited to attend this session, which Barnebey predicts as an important “aha moment” for the space’s possibilities.

In June, the task force will receive a final written report on design plans for the school’s new grounds, and will pursue a CDC review of the proposals.

Funding still needed

As of now, no funding exists to cover the cost of any future plans, but Barnebey hopes that the end result of the six-month planning process will be “a marketable piece of material” to attract donors.

At the meeting, Rogers emphasized the importance of engaging youngsters who, along with their families, will develop a sense of pride in the project during the two years slated for completion. Other ideas to engage the youth included holding a contest where students try to craft a slogan for the project.

Mehl’s CHAD students are already working on some preliminary designs, which will be on display during the charter high school’s First Friday exhibit this week.

While Kelly Green committee members know that safely maintaining the new amenities against loitering and potential vandalism may be a challenge, they said local involvement in planning could foster a long-term sense of community ownership and responsibility.

Rocio Cabello, a neighbor, community artist and gardener, insisted the benefits will outweigh potential hazards, saying that problems can be “tackled through education” and the involvement of Kelly students and their parents.

“This kind of thing doesn’t always take money. It takes initiative,” she said. “This is an empty canvas in the middle of our neighborhood.”

Community members interested in the process can contact HGNC through their website.

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