MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Creating a positive and long-lasting impact in both their schools and their community is the goal of three schools in the South Orange-Maplewood School District that will receive funding from Sustainable Jersey for Schools to host sustainability projects.
Eleven $10,000 grants and 35 $2,000 grants funded by the New Jersey Education Association were distributed to fund a variety of projects, including rain gardens, outdoor learning classrooms, a winter greenhouse, an aquaponics system, native habitat gardens, sustainability curricula and more.
Seth Boyden Elementary School will receive $10,000 for its Nature Story Trails and Habitat Garden, a project with the goal of developing a habitat where students come face to face with the native plants and animals of New Jersey.
The students will create nature story trails where specific plants will be installed with corresponding signage along mulched pathways to connect wildlife and vegetation into a tangible and fun learning experience. Trails will introduce students to the plants and animals that share the neighborhood with them, and teach them what they need to do to preserve the ecosystem around them.
Maplewood Middle School and Tuscan Elementary School were each recipients of $2,000 grants and will be using their funding for Building Relationships Through Mentoring and an Eco Lawn Rehab Demonstration Project and Garden, respectively.
“NJEA is proud to work with Sustainable Jersey on this important program that directs resources into our schools,” New Jersey Education Association Secretary-Treasurer Sean Spillerin said in a recent press release. “It is our job to help create a new generation of engaged citizens and leaders. By emphasizing the value of sustainability, we also help ensure that we leave a better world for our students.”
Earlier this year, Sustainable Jersey formed an underwriting partnership with NJEA. In addition to funding this cycle of the grant program, NJEA provides in-kind support through research and technical expertise. NJEA’s leadership and members serve on Sustainable Jersey task forces and more than 137 districts and 328 schools are currently participating in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program.
Reviewers found Seth Boyden’s submission proposing to create the trails and gardens in order to familiarize students with the plants and animals in the local community to be a standout among the other submissions.
“The Seth Boyden proposal stood out because one of the criteria is organizing leadership within school community, and they definitely demonstrated that there is dedication among both students and teachers/administration to seeing the project through,” Sustainable Jersey Co-director Donna Drewes said in a recent interview with the News-Record. “Seth Boyden has been working on this for years and building on it and this is an ambitious project. It’s really pretty amazing and it was also successful because they gave us graphics and layouts. They also demonstrated how it will integrate with their learning and those organizations like the Rotary Club and local businesses that are supporting them.
“Some of the criteria we look for is if the application can demonstrate or talk about a long-standing commitment and does it make sense for the community,” Drewes continued. “We also look to see if they have identified resources and reached out to the right organizations, experts and partners in the community to help them meet their goals.”
Sustainable Jersey utilizes a Blue Ribbon external reviewer committee that looks at the applications and ranks them, something that Drewes says is in place because the organization really values being able to assist applicants with building strong proposals.
“A lot of funders won’t talk to you about the project; you just submit your application and wait. Our whole grants program is tailored to helping schools put good proposals together,” she said. We do webinars, we want them to do really well and we want them to know what resources are out there.”
By using the external review committee, Sustainable Jersey is able to work with those who don’t receive grants and troubleshoot different ways to put together a stronger proposal for future submission periods.
“If your proposal isn’t funded, we will go over it and help you understand how to make it stronger and what you can do differently next time,” Drewes said. “Our whole program is about helping schools put together successful proposals.”
Drewes said the organization reaches out to a host of strategic partners every year to request funding, and this year NJEA provided a generous donation of $180,000 to fund the small grants initiative.
“When you have principals and teachers standing up and telling how much the grant means to their schools, it’s really powerful,” she said. “Having the ability to have the support of NJEA and other funders is the spark that allows for bigger and better things to happen in the schools.”
The proposal from Maplewood Middle School is focused on building a mentoring program that emphasizes building relationships, and the proposal from Tuscan Elementary focuses on finding more environmentally friendly ways to take care of lawns and gardens.
School district personnel did not respond to requests for comment.
“Mentoring can really change lives. Middle school is such a turbulent time and the number of kids that will be touched is going to be amazing,” Drewes said. “New Jersey already has laws about pesticides on lawns and in schools yards. For their project Tuscan Elementary parents and the green teams are working together to figure out how to renovate the areas without using harmful substances, and they will talk to some environmental specialists and expand their school garden.”