Lankenau High School students band together to bring vandalized school gardens back to life

Students at Lankenau High School came together to revive the school's garden. (Courtesy of Lankenau High School

Students at Lankenau High School came together to revive the school's garden. (Courtesy of Lankenau High School

Vandalism is most often associated with spray paint or graffiti. So it’s been difficult for students and administrators at Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet High School to wrap their heads around the gravity of the type of vandalism that took place on the school’s three-acre property at 201 Spring Lane in Roxborough.

Over the course of two nights in mid-February unidentified vandals took a joyride through the school’s grounds using at least one, large four-wheel vehicle, pulling up almost all of the grass and destroying several gardens, undoing more than 500 hours of student volunteer work that had been contributed over the past five years.

The school’s principal, Karen Dean, said the outdoor space is integral to the school’s curricular and extracurricular activities.

“It’s used by the botany club for the most part but other teachers often go out and do lessons and activities on the grounds.” Dean said. “We know what [the vandals] did was deliberate, what we don’t know is their intent.”

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Damages are estimated to cost anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000 to repair.

While police are still looking for the culprits, Dean said students and faculty at the school have shifted their energy toward “repairing the damage and then safeguarding so hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”

The plan

In the days following the vandalism, members of Lankenau’s Botany Club, including faculty member Jennifer Hardisky who leads the club, were too distraught to even begin to think of how they would remedy the situation. That’s when an unlikely group of students, led by their English teacher, Meredith Joseph, sprang into action.

Shyonna Williams is one of 10 to 12 seniors who offered their time and skills to launch a fundraising and outreach effort to repair the school’s grounds.

“When it happened it was like all of the work that kids put in over the years was just lost,” Williams said. “I thought it was important for us to step up and put effort in to try to help rebuild it so years from now students can see and take advantage of what we did.”

The students began by calling neighbors, elected officials, and even contractors and landscapers to ask for donations, pricing estimates and guidance on how to repair what was destroyed.

While their English teacher, Joseph, accepts credit for rallying the group of students together, she said once the students had direction they managed the effort all on their own. 

According to Joseph, the project has served as a more practical curriculum that has brought out the best of the students’ abilities.

“It’s been a really good experience as a teacher to see them rising up doing things that you had no idea they could do. By-in-large they are self-directed, I give them their list of things to do in the morning and then they run with it. They really have stepped up and handled themselves well,” Joseph said.

“Most of what they’re doing for this, the writing and public speaking for the English part of it with me, the political piece of it for social studies, from the science end of it there are obvious things, and then the math piece of it will come with the planning of the gardens and the budgeting and fundraising, it’s real practical experience. We can’t teach this in the classroom. They are learning by doing it.”

The response

The students’ efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Williams and another senior student, Dominique Bennett, made phone calls that reeled in support from four contractors who have agreed to regrade and reseed the soil for free. Roxborough Memorial Hospital devoted carpenters to build a split rail fence for the property, and provided a check for $1,000 to go toward the purchase of the materials, and several community members have pitched in small donations.

Representatives from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society organized the donation of various flowers, plants, shrubs, trees, bulbs and stones that were leftover from the annual Philadelphia Flower Show to be replanted in the school’s gardens. PHS is also hosting the school’s online donations site.

“We were so upset when we heard about what happened, so we reached out to the school to see how we could help,” PHS Chief of Programs Julianne Schrader Ortega said. 

Going forward

Joseph stressed that while much has been accomplished, a lot of work remains. Their deadline — to be ready in time for the school’s annual spirit day — is looming.

The school is still in need of some supplies to replenish the gardens, and perhaps more importantly, financial support to secure the school grounds with security cameras.

“Most of that damage that happens to this building happens overnight, whether it’s kids out back having a party, or ATVs riding through the snow, or this particular event. So security cameras will be a big part of making sure it’s secure so that all of this work doesn’t get undone,” said Joseph. 

Dean said she’s confident that the repairs will be completed within the timeframe.

“With the support we’ve been getting, I believe we will be up and running by spirit day,” Dean said.

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