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Citizen of the Week: Barbara Matteucci

The rheumatologist-turned teacher transformed a moribund schoolyard into a burgeoning teaching garden

The schoolyard of Thomas May Peirce Elementary in North Philadelphia used to be little more than a barren square of cement in the middle of a mostly barren concrete neighborhood. But a year ago, a remarkable transformation began to take place in the yard outside Peirce. Raised gardening beds hold a well-tended mixture of wildflowers, herbs, and vegetables. The wooden beds, as well as the gates to the school courtyard and even some of the nearby trash cans, are hand painted with cheery outdoor scenes. Students, into and out of class, stop to admire the scene.

This remarkable facelift is thanks to one unlikely schoolyard savior: Barbara Matteucci.

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Matteucci is a Wyndmoor native with no gardening experience other than a few  household herbs. She was a rheumatologist until 2007, when she decided to follow her passion for helping underserved student children and become a teacher. “In order to make a difference, in order to really have a healthy population,” she notes, “you have to be educated.”

After getting her education degree Matteucci became a 4th to 6th grade science teacher at Peirce, a forbidding brick monolith with about 400 students. Like many schools in the area, Peirce’s students are mostly minority, with relatively few resources and few out of class amenities. It was, for someone wanting to make an impact on Philly children in need, the perfect match. Matteucci taught there for five years before retiring.

And there the story could have ended, if not for a year Matteucci spent at Friends Central School filling in for a science teacher. The verdant, rambling Friends campus—a stark comparison to the cracked sidewalk and chain-link fencing which surrounds Peirce —inspired her. Matteuci wanted to bring that same beauty and tranquility to the students in North Philly. Last year, when she returned to Peirce to fill a vacant science post, she got her chance.

In the fall, Matteucci began building the Peirce garden beds herself, slowly creating the foundations for her vision of a more cheerful, welcoming school. But more importantly, she wanted to make sure the kids were involved. So in February, it was students of T.M. Peirce who planted the first seeds in containers in a vacant classroom, using donated grow lights to help their project take root.

A small grant from Lowe’s and the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Green City Teacher program (a five-session course designed to enable educators to start school gardens), Matteuci and her students were able to transfer the garden outdoors once the weather grew warmer. As the school year continued, the garden thrived. Seeds, vegetables, flowers, and even pesky caterpillars who invaded the beds were all used in the classroom to help students understand the ins and outs of gardening.

“I want them to observe, but I also want them to feel empowered,” she says. “I want them to feel like they can work in the garden, like they can do this too.”

By spring, teachers and kids were eating salads in class made from I’m lettuce they had helped to tend, and lucky parents were sent home with bags full of fresh spinach. All grade levels were able to take part in some way, which was one of Matteucci’s goals for the project.

“I want them to observe, but I also want them to feel empowered,” she says. “I want them to feel like they can work in the garden, like they can do this too.”

By the end of the year, Matteucci noticed something else: Her small schoolyard garden had spawned other earth-friendly projects. Fourth grade students formed the “Clean Team,” which gathered in the morning to pick up trash in the schoolyard. Other students have taken seeds from the garden home to plant, or made an independent effort to clean litter off their own blocks.

Laniya Jackson 10
Laniya Jackson, 10. Photo: Sabina Louise Pierce

Of course, the project hasn’t been without its challenges. “As is true with any city school, there’s a lot of transciency that occurs,” Matteucci notes. “There are children that are coming in even halfway through the year.” For Barbara, this means finding consistent help for even simple tasks, such as watering and weeding, is a constant challenge.

Nonetheless, Matteucci is back this year—this time as just a garden volunteer. And she has an abundance of ideas for new ways the students can get involved, like a gardening club and painting more murals. Other ideas, like developing habitats for neighborhood wildlife and building a sundial, are more long-term.

“I feel at home at Peirce,” Matteucci says. “It’s my teaching home. But the need is greater than that here, the need is huge.”

Interested in getting involved? Contact Barbara Matteucci at [email protected]

Header Photo: Sabina Louise Pierce

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