When Golestan Education took over the old St. Jerome’s Catholic school in El Cerrito, Calif., it looked much like your average suburban parochial school: a nondescript squat building sporting a cross on one side, abutting 18,000 square feet of concrete. There was not a single tree anywhere on the property.
But that was before Golestan co-founder and executive director Yalda Modabbar unveiled her ambitious plans for the space. Now there are four brand-new sunlight-filled classrooms with massive sliding glass walls that open up to what once was an asphalt-slathered playground, an expanse of green with lots of trees, boulders and bales of hay for kids to play on. Between the classrooms and the playground are two tiers of planters – one at kids’ height filled with plants for them to work and play with, the other with flowers to attract hummingbirds. Connecting the greenery outside with the indoor learning space is exactly the point of it all, says Modabber. “When you’re inside, you feel like you’re outside, even on a rainy day.”
Golestan is one of a growing number of schools across the country that are ditching the old 1940s-era asphalt-slathered playground model in favor of trees, flowers and gardens. And the benefits are more than just aesthetic: A growing body of research indicates that having access to green space at school has a direct impact on mental health as well as academic success.
William Sullivan, professor and head of the landscape program at the University of Illinois, has spent much of his career studying the impact of green spaces on human beings. One recent project involved giving high school kids “mentally fatiguing” tests in one of three environments: a room with no windows, a room with windows but no vegetation, and a room with a view of vegetation. In the room with no windows, the students reported the highest stress and made the most errors on the tests, while kids in the room with the view of trees reported the lowest stress and made the fewest errors.

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The combined indoor/outdoor learning space at Golestan brings the outside world indoors, creating an environment that is conducive to learning and improved test scores.

Sullivan is currently working on research that shows that exposure to green space is predictive of graduation rates, standardized test scores and even college attendance. “Having green exposure on school grounds is not a trivial thing in the slightest,” says Sullivan. “The success that a person has in high school puts them on a life course that’s hard to change from.”
The catch: Golestan is a nonprofit where students pay tuition to attend. How can their model work at a public school, where the student body is largely dependent on financial aid?
Hoover Elementary in West Oakland – just a few miles south but a million miles from Golestan, socio-economically speaking – is attempting to find out. It might be a cash-strapped inner-city school where most students qualify for free lunch, but it has devoted over 5,600 square feet of its property to growing fruit, vegetables, herbs, bushes and fruit trees, enough so that they will start supplying the West Oakland farmers market with fresh produce. The local homeless population are free to take whatever is ripe when they walk by.
“We’ve seen a lot of benefits, not just with healthy eating but also with a connection to nature, says Hoover Principal Ashley Martin. “Being in a trauma-saturated community, the garden really offers a space for kids to help them kind of calm down and regulate.”
All of this side-steps another critical feature of green schoolyards: their positive environmental impact. When rain hits concrete, it bounces off and can easily overwhelm sewer systems, leading to runoff that can cause flooding and erosion. Stormwater runoff also picks up and carries with it many different types of pollutants that are found on paved surfaces – fertilizer, motor oil, bacteria and so on. Green schoolyards absorb the rain, mitigating these effects while nourishing local plants and trees, something that could make a big difference in cities that regularly experience flooding exacerbated by climate change.
“I like to see schoolgrounds as a microcosm of the city [we] would like to see,” says Sharon Danks, founder and executive director of Green Schoolyards America, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit that seeks to grow the green schoolyard movement. To her, schoolyards across America represent a vast resource that few communities have begun to tap: Despite its ubiquity, the exact amount of land public schools occupy is unknown, even to city planners. “Cities are essentially planning with gaping holes in their maps where all the schools are,” Danks says. In other words: If that land were developed in a responsible and sustainable way, we might be able to slow the devastating effects of climate change.
None of this is cheap, of course, but tapping existing climate funds, urban-greening grant programs, and even cap-and-trade money could help pay for greening concrete-slathered jungles. “We need to think about this as park planning and apply infrastructure-scale budgets that we would normally apply to a park or a stormwater project,” Danks says.
But how about in dense urban areas, like in New York City, where the schools often don’t have campuses to work with? Most New York City schools have expansive rooftops that are underutilized, says Vicki Sando, who teaches STEM classes at P.S.41 in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Sando was the project and fundraising lead for P.S.41’s green roof, one of the first green school roofs in the city, completed in 2012. “Not all schools are ideal candidates, but the ones that are see multiple benefits,” Sando says. “Our energy usage has gone down about 22 percent with the green roof on there, and the kids are so enthusiastic about going up there and reconnecting with nature in an urban environment.”
Modabber echoes Sando’s enthusiasm. “The younger the child, the more space they need,” she says. “These kids are growing up with a deep love of nature, and they are going to want to preserve it.”
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