Aug. 11, 2017

Eleanor Skillen students and staff planting trees

BEAUTIFYING SCHOOL GROUNDS — Students at Eleanor Skillen School 34, staff and volunteers planted trees along Boyd Avenue. Eleanor Skillen has partnered with Keep Indianapolis Beautiful to build an orchard and outdoor learning lab on school grounds. The orchard includes a total of 15 mixed fruit trees.   

When the sixth-graders at Eleanor Skillen School 34 wanted to plant an orchard in unused green space on school grounds, Deana Perry knew exactly who to call to make the outdoor beautification project happen.

Perry, then the school’s literacy coach, had been involved in several Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB) projects around her neighborhood. So she called the non-profit organization for help.

A sign shows where a tree will be planted at Eleanor Skillen School 34

But Perry took the original idea for an orchard a step further and decided to also create an outdoor learning lab, for which the school received a KIB Club Grant. The money, however, didn’t stop there.

While planning the outdoor lab, the school’s garden committee discussed the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the community and decided to use a nearby vacant lot owned by the school to grow much-needed food for both the school and neighborhood to enjoy. KIB awarded Eleanor Skillen another grant, this time through its Community Forestry program, which is part of NeighborWoods — a national effort to replant entire urban communities through partnerships with the Alliance for Community Trees and the City of Indianapolis.

To fulfill the school’s ambitious project, Eleanor Skillen’s Parent Involvement Educator Nancy Tharp created “Digging with Dads,” an event where more than 80 dads and their children worked on cleaning up the school grounds and planted fruit-bearing trees in the orchard. Dads, students, teachers, neighbors, KIB volunteers and members of Citizens Energy Group worked side by side until this job was complete.

To date, there are a total of 15 mixed fruit trees — apple, pear, plum and peach, as well as some native fruit like serviceberries, pawpaws and persimmons. The harvests will be used to provide produce for the school’s food pantry, and the orchard and outdoor learning lab will be used as another tool to teach students — including science and math activities. The school’s Garden Club, led by teachers Maureen Surface and Shaun Crosbie, takes the lead on caring for the newly transformed green space.

More plans are in the works as KIB and school leaders continue to brainstorm solutions to the challenges expressed by neighbors and students.

In addition to the orchard, which was planted on April 28, 2017, Eleanor Skillen also worked with KIB and the Bean Creek Neighborhood Association to plant 18 more trees along Boyd Avenue, and the school’s third-graders have been growing cabbage with hopes of securing raised beds this fall to grow pumpkins.

“It’s really more than an orchard. Developing this project has been a wonderful experience that has taught students and families the importance of giving and highlighted the essence of community,” said Tharp.