Keep Charlotte Beautiful microgrants help students learn environmental stewardship
Leslie Blaser
Kids digging in dirt
Keep Charlotte Beautiful microgrants help students learn environmental stewardship

This spring, Keep Charlotte Beautiful awarded $500 beautification microgrants to 12 different projects focused on litter prevention, waste reduction and recycling, beautification, and community greening.

Four of these grants went to different Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to help educate students on these key tenants of environmental responsibility. Read on to see how each school is using its grant to help students clean up, beautify their schools, and become environmental stewards for their communities.

Chantilly Montessori Elementary School
Chantilly Montessori Elementary School is adjacent to Chantilly Ecological Sanctuary, a refuge of wetland areas and ponds that attracts birds, deer, and other wildlife. Students, teachers and community members alike enjoy this natural space. After storms, however, the banks of the pond are littered with trash flowing downstream, so the Chantilly Montessori Elementary School PTO decided to do something about it. Kids digging in dirt
This spring, the PTO used a Keep Charlotte Beautiful microgrant to purchase litter grabbers, gloves and trash bags for students to use during litter pick-ups for the area. Outdoor learning is a key part of Montessori education, and this effort will beautify the area, teach young people the value of ecological responsibility and community service, and expose students to local wildlife. The materials will be maintained by the Chantilly PTO for annual use.

Lauren Sawyers, Chantilly Montessori Elementary School’s PTO president who applied for the grant, hopes to use this project and the school’s new litter clean up resources to take that school-community learning out into the broader community.

“Caring for the planet is just as important as caring for each other,” she said. “This [sanctuary] is a community asset; hopefully, that will be made evident to the kids as they work to keep it beautiful.”

Northridge Middle School
Over time, the courtyard at Northridge Middle School fell into a state of disarray. Benches were rusted, bushes and shrubs were overgrown, and no one was able to go outside and access the space. “It was all over the place – it was like a jungle,” said Olivia Crocker, a media assistant who works with the school’s Makerspace. When students started asking her why they couldn’t go outside in it, she realized the school should do something to clean up the space.

students planting flowers in a planter
Crocker used a Keep Charlotte Beautiful grant to beautify the courtyard. As a team, they cleaned up the overgrown brush, added new plant materials, purchased umbrellas for the tables, and more. By the end of the school year, students and teachers alike were regularly outside, eating lunch, enjoying themselves, and sometimes even hosting class outdoors.

“Beautiful landscaping and clean facilities push students in the right direction by giving them a wonderful space to work and grow in. They come into school knowing that they’re worth something because someone took the time to take care of a place they call home for eight or more hours of the day,” Crocker said.

She’s especially excited about the opportunities that the space brings to break out of a traditional classroom. It encourages students to get more hands-on, including taking care of some of the plants and the garden, she said. “When we engage in outdoor activities or tie it into the Makerspace or their curriculum and content areas, kids get excited and want to keep coming back.”

“If scholars are unaware how to keep the space clean and take care of everything around the space, then we’re not doing our part. So [this project] makes sure we’re doing our part: how to take care of the space and learn more about gardening, sustainability, and agriculture,” she continued. It’s also a welcomed space as students physically returned to the building, who had trouble connecting with one another. Crocker said the hallways were silent when they came back, as new students had difficulty connecting in person after months of being virtual. Now, however, she regularly sees them together outside in the courtyard enjoying themselves. “In elementary school, they go outdoors on the playground, but in middle school, they don’t get that opportunity except the track,” she said. “It’s good to let them go out and enjoy themselves; they’re young!”

Park Road Montessori
Death is difficult for anyone to process, and it’s especially hard for children to comprehend. After Park Road Montessori teacher Sue Audino passed away in January 2020, fellow teacher Heather Ruckterstuhl and others wanted to honor her and find a way to help students cope. As they brainstormed ways to honor Sue, the team learned that several staff and students have passed away during the school’s 29-year history.

“As a community, we’ve had a lot of loss. There’s a need to find a space to honor that loss and remember those people and share those stories. The importance and the need for this, for everyone, seems to have grown [with the pandemic]. We’ve had loss at our school through COVID as well,” Rucktersthul said. “I feel like we’re focusing in on an emotional need that people have – to recognize that loss and share about it.”

Park Road Montessori School will use a Keep Charlotte Beautiful grant to contribute toward building their Memorial Sanctuary, a 15-foot square pavilion with two swings facing one another. The sanctuary will be built at the front of the school, so a passerby can look through the monument and see directly to the classroom where Sue taught. Those in the school community and surrounding neighborhood can engrave a paver with a name, an encouraging word or a memory, which will help form a greater connection between the neighborhood and the school.

teachers in the hallway
This beautification project is intended to offer peace, healing and sanctuary to those suffering from loss of a loved one. The space will offer names of those who have been lost and create a space to share their stories and memories.

The project and its fundraisers have given the students the opportunity to comprehend more about death. For example, students worked with their art teacher to paint their own river rock like a memorial, with the name of a loved one they’ve lost, such as a relative or pet. They learned what a memorial was, the meaning behind them, and why they are important. The rocks currently line the site where the memorial will be built.

Ruckterstuhl wanted to include the children in this project so they have an understanding and connection, and so everyone has a part. “I feel like we as a culture tend to avoid that subject of death, but it has been very present at our school,” she said. “[We’re] trying to help the children process that: what that means, how it affects them. Doing it in a way that feels safe makes death feel a little less scary and is an important lesson for children to understand.”

Statesville Road Elementary
Nicole Hinnant, a first-grade teacher at Statesville Road Elementary, remembered how much she loved to explore nature when she was young, and she wanted to give her students the chance to enjoy nature in the same way.

She received a beautification grant to start a garden so that students and neighbors alike can grow healthy fruits, vegetables, and herbs for the community. The garden will also be used as an outdoor learning space, with tree stump seats and an outdoor white board. Additionally, she plans on hosting monthly community clean ups to help keep the school and surrounding community clean.

By creating a safe and engaging outdoor space, Hinnant believes more students will spend time outside instead of staring at screens. She also hopes that the garden will inspire healthy eating at home and bring together community members to build a sense of neighborhood pride and comradery. “By starting here at the school, we can get the kids excited, which will hopefully get their parents excited, and then all of their families get excited about taking care of what’s ours,” she said.

In the garden, they are currently growing peppers, watermelon, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, tomatoes, planted carrots, squash, raspberries, rosemary, and different types of flowers. Hinnant is hoping to purchase stumps for seating and river rocks that students can paint for the space so it can be ready when students return to school in the fall. She’s also hoping the monthly cleanups can start at the beginning of next school year.

“I really want the kids to be invested in keeping the school beautiful and pretty,” she said. “If we can instill in them early the importance of caring about our community and keeping it clean, it will help everybody if the kids really care because they will be the ones doing it [in the future],” she said.