School Talk: Jackson unveils its new green roof

Editor’s Note: School Talk is an occasional feature that will look at education and parenting issues in South Philly. If you have concerns, ideas, suggested topics or other thoughts about the state of schools and ways to keep improving them, email us at

Weighing in this time is Rachel Howe, president of the South Philly Parents Resource Center, who participated in Green Day at Jackson Elementary last weekend, when the school’s new rooftop garden was unveiled.

Mayor Nutter cuts the ribbon last Saturday. All pics by James G. Mundie.
Mayor Nutter cuts the ribbon last Saturday. Next to him is Principal Lisa Kaplan and with the microphone is Michele McDonnell, president of Jackson Home and School Association. All pics by James G. Mundie.

“And are you doing anything special this weekend?” the doctor asked my six-year-old son, who had accompanied his brother for flu shot.

“I’m going to a big party at my school tomorrow!” he announced proudly. “I’m going to meet the mayor.”

“You’re going to school on a Saturday?” the doctor asked in surprise. “Mayor Nutter?”

Indeed. Dylan shook his head emphatically. We were going to Green Day at Andrew Jackson Elementary School, where Dylan is in the first grade. Apparently, his enthusiasm was shared by many, because the next day about 350 people filled the gym and schoolyard, painting flowerpots, playing games, buying food, and checking out the new rooftop garden that was at the heart of the celebration.

The garden, which is on level with the second floor above the auditorium, was organized by professors Melissa Wilde and Steven Miscelli, a married couple with two Jackson students who teach at the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore, respectively. The project brought undergraduates from service-learning courses to work with Jackson teachers and staff. Comprised of 21 permanent planters and 52  “earth boxes” – plastic tubs the teachers can move back and forth from roof to classroom – the garden will grow a variety of vegetables and flowers the teachers can use for their science lessons.

Andrew Jackson garden


Andrew Jackson garden1
That’s Councilman Mark Squilla in the black leather jacket.

Penn sophomore and teaching assistant Vanessa Wagner is leading other undergrads on a project to grow mushrooms in the basement of the school. “I’ve grown as far as coordinating and organizing,” Wagner said of her experience. “It takes a lot of work to do this but I think it’s worth it because we’ve been at Jackson and we’ve seen the staff and the students and how great they are. So that makes it worth the work.”

Jackson staff couldn’t be happier with the results. “This is an amazing community endeavor that’s going to benefit our entire school,” Principal Lisa Caplan said as she rushed around guiding visiting VIPs and schmoozing with current parents and those who were there to check out the school for future kindergarteners.


Jackson Green Day was not simply a celebration of the community’s work for the school, it was equally a presentation of the school to the community. I volunteered to assist the artist from Philly Facepainting, so I had a chance to chat with those new and potential parents. Plenty made it no secret that their main motivation in coming was to check out the school, and most were pleasantly surprised.

Amber Dorko-Stoppard, whose daughter is in kindergarten, says she is very satisfied with the education, despite the large classes that have caused an uproar. “She’s learning!” she said, “It’s just fine here.” Another kindergarten parent, a teacher at a different district school, said she would recommend Jackson to any of her friends. Comments like these were not lost on those with pre-schoolers in tow.


Finally, Mayor Michael Nutter spoke (and Dylan did get to shake his hand). After he addressed how important such projects like the garden are in helping kids understand the environment, his attention turned to the matter on many of the participants’ minds – school funding. It was important, he said, to put politics aside to take care of our children, and he advocated once again for more education dollars from the state.

Agreed. A cool new garden can go a long way toward winning the hearts of a community – and that’s half the battle in supporting a great school – even if mushrooms and tulips can’t do much to bring class sizes down.

– Rachel Howe