Improved landscaping, stormwater management, outdoor classroom and paved pathway to Lexington part of project
By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
When students arrived at Central High School for the start of the sesquicentennial school year, the “prison” looked a little more inviting.
Photo right: Members of the Transforming Central Committee and Principal Mary Mackbee survey the work being done to create the outdoor classroom in August 2016. “I’m super excited for the outdoor classroom and learning opportunities that the project is installing,” said senior Olive Murdoch Meyer, who is the co-president of Roots and Shoots. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)
The transformation of the state’s oldest, continuously-operating, and only five-story high school campus began on June 13. It included improved landscaping and stormwater management, an outdoor classroom, and a paved pathway across campus to Lexington Pkwy.
Before these updates, longtime Principal Mary Mackbee described the front entryway as “bland.” As work progressed over the summer, she was looking forward to returning students passing through the project area and seeing all the new things in front. “It’s wonderful,” Mackbee stated.
“We always joked that Central resembled a prison—and maybe took some pride in that—but these updates will make it have a sense of place, make it feel like the great academic school it is,” stated St. Paul Council Member and Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Chris Tolbert, who graduated in 2001.
Tolbert praised the group of parents who have worked on this update for years. “This project would not have happened but for their persistence, dedication, and resourcefulness,” said Tolbert. “I hope that we can keep that level of dedication from parents for generations.”
Photo left: Members of the Transforming Central Committee are excited to see five years of work coming to fruition. The changes to the stormwater system and front plaza were sparked by students, staff, and parents. The project completion kicks off the sesquicentennial celebration of the school. Left to right: Ann Hobbie, Lisa Heyman, Maggie O’Reilly, Principal Mary Mackbee, Julie Marckel, Olive Murdoch Meyer and Nina Tuttle. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)
Committee members included Deb Ahlquist, Beth Black, Amber Buckner, Patricia Eaves, Craig Davies, Sally Gagne, Kris Hageman, Lisa Heyman, Ann Hobbie, Margaret Jones, Julie Marckel, Dana Murdoch, Maggie O’Reilly, Jeff Risberg, and Nina Tuttle.
“We thought that Central’s drab and uninviting exterior did not reflect the diverse, welcoming and vibrant community inside,” observed committee member Heyman. “With the addition of the outdoor classroom and seated planters there will be so many more places to sit. The paved pathway to Lexington will bring dignity to all students. No longer will they trudge through the mud to get to their buses.”
Someone cared enough
“Appearance plays a big role in the way people feel,” remarked Adrian Perryman, a 2003 Central High School graduate and current Concordia University employee. “Knowing that someone cared enough to invest their time into this project will make students feel special. I don’t recall any improvements when I was a student, but the appearance of the school and the grounds was definitely a topic of discussion.”
According to Maggie O’Reilly, the effort to upgrade and renovate the outdoor campus started five years ago when parents on the committee noted the compacted soil on the grounds, excessive water runoff, worn trees and landscaping, and unattractive entrance. They also noted a need for outdoor seating and a paved walking path from the plaza to Lexington Ave.
The Transforming Central project officially got underway by a dedicated group of parents, students and community members in the fall of 2011 when the committee partnered with the Root and Shoots environmental awareness team and the National Honor Society to plant over 500 bulbs on the school grounds.
Next, they surveyed students, faculty, administrators, parents and community members to gather input on desirable exterior improvements, which was put together into a document that guided planning for the next few years.
Things really got moving in the summer of 2012 when students and parent volunteers planted the three large tiers that frame the front exterior stairway with native perennials and grasses thanks to private donations and school support. Committee member Julie Marckel recalled how two environmental classes spread out wood chips in the tiers to mulch the plants. Those classes, along with the National Honor Society and the Roots and Shoots, have continued to care for the grounds. “It’s a nice way to get the kids involved,” said Marckel.
Cleaning up water runoff
In November 2012, Central received a grant from the Capitol Region Watershed District (CRWD) to analyze storm water run-off at the site, and in September 2013, they got another CRWD grant for the stormwater retrofit project. More money came in later to make changes at the site, which included the removal of the berm areas in front of the school along Marshall Ave. and extensive excavation for the underground storm water treatment system that will also manage water draining from the roof. A large rain garden at the corner of Marshall and Lexington will beautify while collecting and filtering water.
Dead and diseased trees were removed and new ones planted. Memorial trees and shrubs planted over the years are being grouped in a Memorial Garden area. All of the new plantings will be native and hardy perennials, trees and shrubs, and will include many pollinator-friendly plants.
Impermeable surfaces are replaced with well-planned permeable ones.
“When the project is finished, 1,434,000 gallons of runoff each year will filter through the ground instead of flowing untreated to the Mississippi River, and 1,367 pounds of sediment will no longer erode,” pointed out Heyman. “Additionally, 4.23 pounds of phosphorous will no longer enter the Mississippi River watershed.”
Environmental science teacher Lisa Houdek and biology teacher Stacey Skinner received an educator’s grant from Capitol Region Watershed District to pay for curriculum and measurement tools. The system has been built so that students can access it to track how much water is in the system, the water quality, and more.
Several grants and donations have been raised over the years to make this project happen, with money coming from state organizations, civic and community groups, as well as private individuals.
The 2013 graduating class commissioned local artist Peter Morales to create a bench to be included in the new landscaping. Each graduating class since has donated money for the project, and Roots and Shoots raised money for the new red hanging bike racks that are located in the front alcoves.
Phase 2 will include art pieces that reflect the vibrancy/energy of Central students and the surrounding community, as well as additional lighting, benches and landscaping. “We are considering sculptures and banner-like art commissioned by local St. Paul artists,” said O’Reilly. Discussions about the art and fundraising for the $100,000 shortfall continue.
A highlight for many is the new outdoor classroom, fashioned out of limestone blocks that form a Fibonacci spiral—a mathematical sequence.
“I’m super excited for the outdoor classroom and learning opportunities that the project is installing,” said senior Olive Murdoch Meyer, who is the co-president of Roots and Shoots. “The beautification of Central’s facade is wonderful, but I think the most important part is giving students a chance to appreciate and utilize the outdoors in a way that wouldn’t have been as accessible before.”
Murdoch Meyer added, “Central is such a strong, vibrant place that can and will get through anything, but this project will be a special refresher to remind us what we can do together as a community, and will bring extra energy to this upcoming school year, as well as years to come. I think that this transformation is a big milestone for Central.”