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Turning Stormwater Runoff into a Plant Paradise

Story and Photography by Melody Guyton Butts

A group of industrious Middle Schoolers recently took a big step forward in their plan to install a rain garden to absorb stormwater runoff from the new Arts & World Languages Center parking lot. After presenting their plan to the Durham Academy Building and Grounds Committee, the students — members of the Science in Action (SIA) class — received not only a green light to proceed, but also funding to make the project a reality.

SIA is an elective course taught by longtime science teacher Barb Kanoy in which students have studied how changes to the campus affect the ecology of the greater community in the short and long term.

The rain garden project began last school year when Kanoy posed a question regarding the then-in-construction Arts & World Languages Center: “What opportunity can you find to make a net positive environmental impact with this construction site?” After talking with several people involved with the construction, it became apparent that their focus should be on stormwater, and the students decided that they could have the biggest impact with a rain garden. Rain gardens serve as water filtration systems that hold water for a short period of time, allowing the water to seep into the ground slowly and into plants, with the excess making its way into a drain.

The SIA class is very much student-driven, and while much planning was done by the 2019–2020 class, the 2020–2021 class had an opportunity to either continue with the project or shift to something new. Much to Kanoy’s relief — and that of Luis Pastor-Valverde ’25, who enrolled in the class as both a seventh- and eighth-grader — the 2020–2021 students chose to continue with the rain garden project.

“They really wanted it to be there because it was draining the parking lot and they didn’t want to just take stormwater from a rooftop, which is relatively clean — they wanted to actually do something with some more significance,” Kanoy said. “They stuck with it even though people kept saying, ‘it would be easier if …,’ ‘it would be easier if …’ ”

Of the six students enrolled in this year’s SIA class, half focused on soil engineering, while the other half did an engineering analysis of the ground and slope to determine the best location of the garden. Their work involved hours of conversations with professionals (engineers, stormwater educators, professors, construction workers, city planners, horticulture experts); lots of trial and error; and a whole lot of math.

“For the mapping part, we had a lot of really big numbers and a lot of restrictions that we had to go through to make sure that nothing was too extreme or too big,” Pastor-Valverde said. “And so it was hard because we had to consider a lot of things like how much water can we let in, how big can we actually make this garden, how far can the slope be. And then when we came up with an answer that worked, it just felt really satisfying.”

The SIA students presented their plan to the Building and Grounds Committee — which comprises DA trustees, administrators and other community members — in April. There were plenty of details on the science behind the decisions, plant options, the timeline for installation, a plan for maintenance and the budget.

Building and Grounds member Lee Barnes ’86 — who is also a trustee, current parent and parent of alumni — was blown away by the presentation, so much so that he and his wife, Christy, offered to cover the cost of the project.

“To me, this is what DA is all about and should be about. That’s amazing work by Ms. Kanoy and the students. They should be very proud of not just the product, but the process,” he said. “I see a use here in perpetuity that beautifies the school while serving a practical purpose. The combination of everything that came together on this is remarkable.”

For SIA student Cana Yao ’26 it felt “pretty awesome.”

“We put in a lot of work, and we were worried that it wasn’t going to go over well,” she said. “I was really, really happy with how it turned out and how generous the people were.”

With the project’s approval, work can now begin to bring the garden to life. Students began hardscaping in early June, with planting to follow and a second major planting in early fall. Volunteers will be welcome.

With two years of SIA under his belt, Pastor-Valverde called it “a really fun class.”

“I hope more fun stuff like this can be done in the future,” he said. “Because actually seeing something that you’ve been working on get implemented — that’s just really, really nice.”