NEWTON, NJ-- Though Newton is only two-and-a-half square miles, it is a bustling community of residences, businesses and schools. It even acts as the county seat. Since it is an urban area, the town needs to pay attention to its local watersheds and the green spaces the community offers its townspeople.
Through a partnership with Wallkill River Watershed Management Group and Rutgers University Cooperative Extension Water Resources, Halsted Middle School is doing its part to keep the water sources of Newton clean and safe.
Organized by community coordinator, Elysia Ochs, the school is constructing a rain garden on the side of the building adjacent to Halsted Street. Nathaniel Sajdak, of the Wallkill River Watershed Management Group, is keen on community involvement for these types of projects that clean the runoff and prevent pollution from entering the town’s critical water sources.
“The key to a successful watershed stewardship or community project is to really find partners that are going to work with you,” Sajdak said. “They need to be eager, interested, and willing to contribute all different kinds of services and resources.”
In Halsted’s case, they are offering manpower and student helpers who will assist in the formation of the garden. On March 28 the school broke ground with this project. The first step for 13 students was a question and answer session with Kristine Rogers, the Watershed Education and Outreach Specialist.
Program Coordinator for Choose 2 Connect, Ochs has been responsible for bringing her group together with the seventh grade SOAR students, Halsted’s version of a Gifted and Talented program. Together, these two groups will be constructing, planting and maintaining the garden
Skyler Murphy, a student involved in this experience, shares her excitement. “I find it interesting and a good way to preserve more water, so that we can use it and filter out anything else that can contaminate it.”
The funding for this initiative came from the Newton Board of Education and the Wallkill Watershed group. Before working on the project, students, educators and the Wallkill Watershed will have to present the design plans from Rutgers to the board of education.
Mayor Helen Le Frois has spoken of the importance of green infrastructure programs like the Halsted project. She said, “People are commenting often on how the town of Newton takes a lot of pride in keeping up our green spaces and fields. It’s not just the town’s effort. I feel it’s really become the community’s effort.”
The Halsted rain garden project is the second collaboration effort involving Newton schools and the Wallkill and Rutgers groups. In 2017, a rain garden project was built in Memory Park to tackle a local flooding issue. For that undertaking, students from Merriam Avenue School pitched in to pilot a green infrastructure design that kept polluted stormwater runoff from the parking lot from draining directly into the Paulins Kill River and nearby wetlands.
Halsted’s rain garden will serve a similar purpose as it aims to collect stormwater and filter out pollution before it enters back into the groundwater. Part of the plan is to provide a path for students to walk through the garden rather than the sometimes muddy grass and dirt currently on the side of the building.
The project is anticipated to begin in a month and be completed by the end of June. Ochs said “It helps make it beautiful with new plants and the path. It also prevents a mud path from forming outside and getting into the school as well.”
More of these kinds of gardens will be sprouting up, as there are plans for Merriam Avenue School to build another rain garden and Newton High School to join in the collaboration as well. Rain gardens are low maintenance projects that students can easily manage in the spring and summer with cleanup in the fall when the garden is shut down for the winter.
The plants that are used are perennials, making it relatively simple to reopen the garden in the spring. With this beautification process underway at Halsted and plans to build two more in the works, the Newton Board of Education and its schools are developing an outside-the-box method for stormwater technologies that involves students as part of the solution.
Editor's Note: This article was written by Halsted Middle School student journalist.