Growing — and Learning — Green

OTR’s Rothenberg Preparatory Academy’s Rooftop Garden School Program teaches students about responsibility and sustainability

Jul 29, 2015 at 12:27 pm
click to enlarge Rothenberg Preparatory Academy’s rooftop garden is a hands-on learning experience for students.
Rothenberg Preparatory Academy’s rooftop garden is a hands-on learning experience for students.


f you drive north on East Liberty in Over-the-Rhine and take a right onto McMicken Avenue, you’ll pass a building whose glass-paneled front doors stand out slightly from the semi-dilapidated storefronts that line the rest of the street. It is neither imposing nor opulent, and you could be forgiven for not giving it a second glance. But that’s only because you can’t see the top of the building: It’s Cincinnati Public School’s Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, and its rooftop houses an exquisite hands-on teaching/learning garden. 

The edifice — built in the ornate Italianate style for which Over-the-Rhine is known — has the slightly modern façade of a recent refurbishment. Only a few years ago it was slated to be torn down and rebuilt, but the OTR Foundation, whose goal is to preserve and protect the historically significant neighborhood while creating an ecologically sustainable urban community, banded together with community members to convince the city to restore, not raze, the building — and it worked.

“It was Pope Coleman [board member of the OTR Foundation] who championed the rooftop garden idea,” says Bryna Bass, garden program director for Rothenberg. “I think he was inspired by Granny’s Garden School in Loveland. [He thought] ‘Well, why couldn’t we do that in the city? We have all of these young people who need this kind of exposure, and where are they going to get it otherwise?’ ”

With Coleman’s vision in mind, the OTR Foundation hired a developer and fundraiser to do the initial grant writing and fundraising because, while CPS agreed not to demolish the space, the restoration wasn’t in their budget. The foundation’s appeal to preserve the building was further bolstered by the fact that, in addition to its architectural and historical significance, Rothenberg is one of only two elementary schools in the neighborhood. The first donation paid for the elevator to take students and teachers up to the top of the building, and after they met their full fundraising goal, the garden officially opened at the start of the 2014 school year.

It’s a project seemingly made for Bass, a former science teacher with degrees in both education and agriculture. She understands how to properly bed seeds, and how to teach the kids to do it as well.

Now, 35 raised garden beds of various sizes dot the ornate rooftop, which was clearly meant to be utilized — in fact, it used to house the school’s playground. “It wasn’t too off the wall to think that something could be up here,” Bass says. “And if you look at the features, there are all of these beautiful bas-reliefs … It was meant to be seen, and people were meant to be up here.”

In the garden there are smooth, oblong squash with wrinkly flowers blooming from their tops, round, green tomatoes, colorful peppers, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, basil, kale (the trendiest of produce) and much more. Most of the produce even ends up featured in the school salad bar.

And the garden is utilized year-round. Its small indoor space is filled to the brim with pots overflowing with amaryllis, part of the Great Amaryllis Race between classes, which starts in classrooms in January. Children race to see who can grow the tallest flower, the fastest-growing flower and the prettiest flower. In the summer, sunflowers creep their way toward full bloom in giant pots shared with husks of corn, and wooden benches and tables, built by students at Reading High School as part of a community service project, line the perimeter to facilitate the classroom experience.

The garden program just completed its first year at the end of June, and each class initially had its own bed to tend to. But because it’s a voluntary enrichment program — “We didn’t want teachers to feel like they absolutely had to participate,” Bass says — it ended up working out better when all classes were able to work on all beds. And they saw participation right off the bat: At least one teacher in each grade signed up to utilize the garden for their classes. Science and math teachers use it the most, to chart growth patterns and teach photosynthesis and the like, but you can really connect it to every subject. “It might inspire English students to write poetry!” Bass says.

Rothenberg’s rooftop even grows cotton, something Bass believes is crucial to teaching the kids about their history, as 97 percent of students are of African-American descent. She also thinks the roof offers a kind of stability that the students don’t have elsewhere.

“[They think] ‘I’m in my neighborhood, but I’m up here, and this feels really different than it does when I’m down on the street,’ ” she says. “So there’s a sense of safety and a different sense of calm and a sense of purpose. They have this innate ownership of the space.”

They’re working on tweaking the program for next year, with an emphasis on more fully integrating the garden into the curriculum as a whole. Regardless, the program is working. “This is my dream job,” Bass says. And the kids seem to like it, too.

For more information on the ROTHENBERG ROOFTOP GARDEN, visit