By. Meghan Raftery, School/Community Partnerships Coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools


Once there was a tree and she loved a school. She was a Live Oak named “Big Mama” and she lived in the courtyard of an elementary school. Thanks to the students of Bettie F. Williams Elementary School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, she still lives in that courtyard, she still loves that school, and she now has her own Twitter handle (@thetreehashtag)! How did Big Mama go from a forgotten fixture on the school grounds to a school hero? It all started when students received a letter from Symsi Houser, Operations Coordinator for the Landscape Management Division of the Virginia Beach Department of Parks and Recreation.


On January 11, 2011, the Mayor of Virginia Beach appointed a 13 member citizen visioning group to study and analyze current trends to determine the future of Virginia Beach in 2040. Where are we now, where will we be, where do we want to be? The goal of the committee was to create a compelling vision for the future that people would support and embrace. One goal the group identified was to establish an Urban Forest Management Plan, and in January 2014 the plan was adopted as an integral component of the city’s comprehensive plan.


An important goal of the plan was to increase the tree canopy from its current 38% coverage to 45% coverage by 2034. Recent reports indicate that trees have a wide range of benefits for cities, making this a worthy and cost-effective endeavor. To assist with this goal, the Landscape Management Division has been awarded a grant, Virginia Trees for Clean Water (TFCW). The purpose of this grant is to encourage local government and citizen involvement in creating and supporting long-term and sustained canopy cover. The grant focuses on planting and maintaining trees with a specific goal to focus on schools with less than 20% Urban Tree Canopy (UTC).


Prior to the first year of the grant, a team from the Landscape Management Division and Virginia Beach City Public Schools met with principals from six schools with a UTC of less than 7% to present a plan for planting dozens of trees on school properties. The goal was to plant indigenous species, such as tulip poplars, bald cypresses, shumard oaks, black gums, and sweet bay magnolias in large, open areas and along school entrance areas. Schools were presented with a proposed site plan and a summary of the total benefits per tree. The Landscape Management Division also scheduled a time to host an educational presentation for students, and provided an opportunity for them to help plant and measure trees, arranging to have signage installed on the trees.


Following these collaborative meetings, the Landscape Management Division arranged to meet with the Department of Teaching and Learning to create a performance task for the school division curriculum. All fourth grade teachers in Virginia Beach City Public Schools can now access the task, learning plans related to the task, an introductory letter from the Landscape Management Division, and data showing the UTC for every elementary school in Virginia Beach. As students learn about the watersheds and natural resources of Virginia, they also have an authentic opportunity to work as citizen scientists, helping the City of Virginia Beach to reach its 2034 goal.


The TFCW grant program is in its third productive year of collaboration between Virginia Beach City Public Schools and the Parks and Recreation Department. The open-endedness of the performance task embedded in the school division curriculum has generated a wide variety of products and opportunities.


(source: Julie Hayden from Bettie F. Williams Elementary)


Students at Bettie F. Williams Elementary engaged hundreds of students with an adapted ‘The Giving Tree’ video story created by fourth graders and read to their younger fellow students. The most motivated tree taggers participated in a sustainability event where students educated school board members from across the region about the importance of increasing UTC. According to Bettie F. Williams gifted resource teacher Mrs. Julie Hayden, “By partnering with real world professionals, the kids had more buy in. The plan for this year is to take kids to the communities by hosting a Civic League Night at the school to educate homeowners about UTC.”


At North Landing Elementary, students created a ‘tree-mercial’, an infomercial written, produced, and directed by students that encourages good stewardship of trees and highlights tree benefits to the community. Students also analyzed UTC data and wrote formal letters to the Landscape Management Division, recommending new sites and types of trees to plant. One student wrote, “The tree I have chosen is the Japanese Zelkova, which grows at a very rapid pace. It can grow at a very rapid pace (8-12 inches per year) and can double its size in 4-6 years. When grown to a 45 in. diameter, it can save you $340. The proper location is somewhere in the front because this is where cars drive around for pickup and drop-off so it will increase the air quality.”


With over 200 trees planted to date at Virginia Beach City Public Schools, the goal to increase the tree canopy is well under way.  This year, the TFCW team continues to work with eco-minded students and their teachers who would like to learn about the benefits of trees, how they affect the environment, and develop programs of their own to increases awareness.  The educational opportunities include, but are not limited to, learning how to calculate benefits using a tree calculator; identifying and inventorying trees on school grounds with the help of trained Arborists; creating tree art and tree-mercials; writing books; investigating the challenges of increasing UTC; and developing a school-based action plan. These lessons are aligned to curriculum standards and students complete their work during the school day, allowing a wide variety of student groups to engage with the problem.


(source: Julie Hayden from Bettie F. Williams Elementary)


According to Symsi Houser, who serves as the Parks and Recreation point of contact for the project, “These kids are our future leaders and it gives me hope that they know the benefits and they know we have to actively pursue this to make it happen. They will use the skills they learned throughout their lives. I never dreamed it would keep growing and evolving like this!”


What began as a small grant to plant trees and a modest educational opportunity for students has grown into a call to action for students and teachers in Virginia Beach City Public Schools. The project serves as a model for embedding community issues directly into school curriculum and offering schools the opportunity to customize the project to suit their passions and needs. Big Mama now has hundreds of tree friends throughout the school division who have gone from forgotten background to beloved teachers for future generations of students who will surely reap the benefits of an increased UTC for years to come.


About the Author

Meghan Raftery (@meg5han) serves as the School/Community Partnerships Coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools and, along with her husband and two sons, is a proud citizen of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Before moving to the area in 2009, Meghan taught second and fourth grades in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Since that time she has worked as an elementary gifted resource teacher, K-12 curriculum instructional specialist, and elementary social studies coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Her primary interests include curriculum development and professional learning about authentic learning experiences centered around community problems. She can be reached at