By Melissa O'Brien
Aliya Catanch-Bradley, the principal of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in North Philadelphia, knew she wanted to do something to inspire hope for her students after George Floyd’s murder sparked racial justice protests across the country in May 2020.
“As a school leader, I felt like I couldn't breathe,” she says. “I wanted to resurrect a tradition of gardening here at Bethune that began before I arrived so we could begin to breathe again and bring more life into this community.”
Bethune is in an area with limited green space, few trees, and many vacant lots — the type of historically disinvested neighborhood where PHS works with the community to help “clean and green” the space to improve health and well-being. By partnering with PHS, Bethune Elementary School used gardening to transform its campus and the surrounding neighborhood into a greener, safer, and healthier place for students to learn and live in.
The Bethune community has worked with PHS for almost two years to improve the health and well-being of the community. In the fall of 2020, PHS worked with Bethune teachers, students, and families to build a functioning community garden on the campus. PHS’s Community Gardens team provided the materials and support to create five garden beds to grow crops, educate students, and foster social connections within the community.
Bethune students helped plant vegetables in the garden beds and shared the harvest with their families at home. They’ve grown eggplant, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, parsley, basil, bok choy, pumpkins, and mammoth sunflowers. Through small cooking classes at the school, they also learned how to prepare healthy meals using the vegetables from the garden.
“The gardens have had an immediate impact on teachers and staff,” says Principal Catanch-Bradley. “Gardening is a form of therapy — the food provides nourishment for families, and the education about the various harvests is priceless for students!”
After the success of the community garden, tree planting was the next logical next step in the Bethune greening initiative. “We generally consider 30% tree canopy coverage in a neighborhood to be a good target to work for, and the census tract where Bethune is located has just 7% tree canopy coverage,” says Tim Ifill, PHS Director of Trees.
According to the school principal, about a quarter of the school’s students have asthma, and studies have shown that children living in areas with more street trees have a lower prevalence of asthma. It’s also well-documented that increasing the tree canopy helps lower air temperature, mitigate air pollution, reduce the mortality rate, and generally improve the quality of life in urban areas.
At the Bethune site, Dynegy, and its parent company, Vistra provided funding for a two-year Trees for Growth initiative, working in partnership with PHS and the school community. In fact, four Bethune teachers immediately signed up to become PHS-certified Tree Tenders to learn more about tree stewardship and help lead the tree planting efforts in the community.
One of the largest plantings took place at the school on Earth Day in April 2021, with students, teachers, PHS staff, and volunteers coming together to plant 15 trees on Bethune’s campus. “How powerful for children as they grow — and watch the trees grow — to be able to know they helped do such a great thing,” says Principal Catanch-Bradley.
Through late 2021, and into 2022, additional trees have been planted and will continue to be planted around the perimeter of the school and on streets adjacent to or near the school. As part of this ongoing effort to beautify the area surrounding Bethune’s campus, PHS’s LandCare program has also cleaned and greened several vacant lots close to the school.
PHS’s Ifill says he is excited to continue to build on the success of this long-term project and expand this model to other schools in Philadelphia. “It’s these relationships that make it much more meaningful and transformative,” he says. The input of Principal Catanch-Bradley and other teachers at the school was crucial in transforming the Bethune Elementary School campus into a thriving, green space where students will breathe freely for years to come.