The Willow School
The Willow School in Gladstone, NJ was co-founded by Mark and Gretchen Biedron, who were committed to combining academic excellence, the joy of learning, and the wonder of the natural world in their new 200 student K-8 private school. They sought to include environmental stewardship as one of the school’s three fundamental teaching objectives, and to make its site a living classroom.
The initial goal of the project was to have LEED certified buildings with some eco-restorative principles implemented. Regenesis helped the project team to think beyond LEED certification, and to adopt a regenerative approach in which they acknowledged that the building and site design are inseparable components of an integrated curriculum aimed at helping students comprehend the patterns of how things are connected.
Through an integrative design process, Regenesis described how the ecosystem was formerly a productive forest and that overgrazing and farming degraded soil and plant life. The design process had already begun, but following Regenesis’ input and report, the project was reconsidered with this deeper purpose in mind.
As a result, the entire site was designed around ecological system regeneration, and a core organizing principle was that the treatment and utilization of water would mimic natural processes. The design includes a constructed wetland for wastewater treatment; use of permeable paving, living roofs, bio swales and 60,000 plugs of adapted species meadow plantings to reduce stormwater runoff; use of an extended detention, deep pool wetland for stormwater treatment; and collection of rainwater for irrigation and toilet water supply. Beyond the technological solutions, all of the design features integrate with and support regeneration of the great expression of forest that was once there— the highest potential expression of living watershed on the site.
Regenesis helped the school and the community learn how they could partner with the forest to enable its evolution to higher levels of effectiveness and ever-increasing capability to support life while it stores, filters, and gradually releases stormwater. Students and visitors are engaged in “the story” of the school’s environment, and the use of nature-based designs help to demonstrate the connections to the planet. Students don’t just observe, but are experiencing and participating with the whole system. Through small-scale trials, they are studying both how and why human activities can have positive or negative impacts on the health of the ecosystem .
The Willow School has been operating since 2000, and has over 250 students. Two of the buildings constructed in the first phase of the development were awarded LEED certification (one LEED Gold and one LEED Platinum). They were integrated with the surrounding environment with the purpose of healing the damaged ecosystem and engaging the community around that purpose.
Regenesis has been brought back into Phase 3 of the project to work with the Willow School faculty to further develop the curriculum around the concept of the school, community, and larger ecosystem as interdependent entities. This integrative process is meant to express how the entire system is connected, and how students can learn from their teachers and parents, their surrounding environment and watershed, and their school’s physical structure as well.
A primary focus of this integration has focused on local food, and how the entire food process (from production, to management, storage, and cooking) can be nested within the school, which is nested within the community, which is itself nested within the ecosystem. This thinking leads the school back to thinking about curriculum, and how the school can allow the students to work with the food directly, to be stewards of the ecosystems that produce the food, and to be members of a community that is striving to be self-reliant in terms of food.