A Garden Dream Fulfilled at the Middle School

A garden dream fulfilled at Islip Middle School thumbnail188302
AnnMarie Mills thumbnail188303

 Spearheaded by science teacher AnnMarie Mills, middle school students designed, built and planted a 400-square-foot native rain garden on the school’s grounds. In a longterm partnership, the project was coordinated by the Seatuck Environmental Association, which worked with Mills and her students every step of the way.

Seven years ago, Mills began her professional “metamorphosis” at Greentree Foundation’s Teachers Ecology Workshop, a weeklong event led by local environmentalists, scientists and professors. Home to one of the most beautiful native plant meadows on Long Island, the Greentree estate encourages educators to implement a native garden at their schools for both educational and environmental purposes. 

A New York State Master Teacher whose accolades include being named 2019 Suffolk Science Teachers Association of New York State Middle Level Teacher of the Year and winning the 2019 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators, Mills began searching for grant opportunities last fall to fund a large-scale native garden at the middle school. She submitted a grant proposal to NOAA Planet Stewards and was thrilled when the project was accepted. She then spent the following nine months completing the grant proposal at home during the pandemic, sending videos to Principal Timothy Martin and other Islip administrators during periods when it was not possible to meet in person.

“I spent the past year dreaming about completing this project with my students, and was fortunate to have the support of my administration and building principal,” Mills said. “Submitting the proposal despite the pandemic will always be one of my most memorable professional achievements.”

As part of the project, Mills’ science classes worked virtually via Zoom with Seatuck Education Director Peter Walsh and landscape designer Sue Avery, discussing the ecological benefits of rain gardens and setting the class off on a design charette in which the students worked in teams to design and present their versions of the garden. The students went outside to recreate 3D versions of the garden so that they could select a shape that would be both beautiful and functional for years to come. In the months and weeks prior to planting, the students also removed soil, grass and weeds from the front lawn, mulched the site, conducted soil and water quality tests, observed the permeability of the soil after it rains, and developed informative signage.

“Working with Seatuck to create this garden will help us to protect the future by returning to the past,” Mills said. “Native plants help restore ecosystems by fostering biodiversity, encourage carbon sequestration and increase water quality. The students at Islip learned about the harmful effects of nitrogen pollution, climate change and the insect apocalypse, and our native garden will serve as a means of remediation and hope. The plants were selected with the idea that ‘If you build it, they will come,’ in hopes that many bird, butterfly and insect species will take refuge on our school grounds. It will be enjoyed by the students of Islip of all ages as well as the community for many years to come.”