U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin Visits Nathanael Greene Elementary

April 11, 2013

Openlands’ community greening and education initiatives received national attention April 11 during a visit from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin to Nathanael Greene Elementary School in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood.

Healthy Schools Campaign, along with representatives from a diverse team of Chicago community partners including Openlands, showcased the broad healthy eating and physical activity initiatives that have earned Nathanael Greene Elementary School Gold-level recognition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge. The HealthierUS School Challenge is a cornerstone of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative.

Healthy Schools Campaign launched their Go for the Gold program in 2010 as a way to support the various Chicago public schools attempting to meet the requirements the HealthierUS School Challenge.

During a tour of Nathanael Greene Elementary, Openlands Education Director Jaime Zaplatosch spoke with Dr. Benjamin about Openlands’ role in the school’s gardening and green space initiatives—part of which includes a complete redesign of the Greene schoolyard.

“We are removing the playground entirely, and creating green space that includes a rain garden, compost area, vegetable beds, stones for seating and jumping, a concrete path for circulation, but also for Physical Education. Construction starts in June,” Zaplatosch said.

According to Zaplatosch, the schoolyard redesign for Greene Elementary is innovative because there isn’t anything like it at other CPS schools.

“(Greene Elementary) Principal (Michael) Heidkamp’s vision for the schoolyard is that it can be one where students re-learn how to play and learn in an unstructured space,” she said. “A lot of learning happens through play – when children are running through the rain garden or next to the native prairie garden and stop to look at what the pollinators are doing. Part of the innovation of this schoolyard is that it is being designed as an outdoor laboratory to support students’ inquiry-based science learning, which the Brookfield Zoo is leading.”

In addition to gardening initiatives, Dr. Benjamin received a firsthand look at other health and wellness initiatives at Greene, such as indoor recess during inclement weather and locally-sourced chicken for school lunches.

The importance of partnerships was one of the key messages shared with Dr. Benjamin during her visit, who said she plans to take the information about the success of Greene Elementary back with her to Washington.

“What we’re doing here will have long-term effects on not only the kids here, but in their communities, as well,” Dr. Benjamin said. “Health doesn’t just occur in doctor’s offices, and (this school) is a perfect example of that.”

During a luncheon among partners after the tour of Greene Elementary, Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann spoke to the power of teamwork and partnerships in achieving success.

“(Schools are) a wonderful place to connect people to nature,” Adelmann said. “But also to connect people to healthy living and wellness, to think about active recreation, to think about the broader impact on the community. Our planning model has always been to engage all of those stakeholders.”

Adelmann also mentioned the environmental benefits of having gardens and green space incorporated into schoolyard designs, touting their ability to absorb storm water in dense urban areas.

Learn more about how Openlands is working with other schools in our region. 

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