As part of its campus master plan, Germantown Academy is breaking new ground.
The oldest nonsectarian private day school in the country has set aside six acres of its 126-acre Fort Washington campus to restore wetlands and meadows.
Called the Preserve, the area reduces runoff into Wissahickon Creek, which crosses the campus; improves wildlife habitat; and provides hands-on environmental learning opportunities for students from GA, other schools, and the community.
It's a key component in a school mission to embrace sustainable design and celebrate the Wissahickon.
"I think, in the end, this could be what really distinguishes Germantown Academy," said James W. Connor, head of school. "It's a unique resource."
The idea for the Preserve crystalized three years ago as the school, with 1,090 students from prekindergarten through 12th grade, was developing a $120 million campus plan to ensure a school founded in 1759 would be "18th century on the outside, 21st century on the inside." Yearly tuition is $19,485 to $27,975.
The school's four athletic fields were in a flood plain, and often were unusable. For years, officials debated how to manage them.
Connor credits Mike Rufo of Rufo Contracting in Conshohocken, who is managing the first phase of the campus plan, with suggesting another approach. "If these fields aren't working, why don't you get rid of them?" Rufo asked.
GA decided to move the fields to higher ground, but what to do with the flood plain? Landscape architect Eric Tamulonis of Wallace Roberts & Todd, a Philadelphia planning and architectural firm developing the campus blueprint, came up with a plan for how GA's flood plain could become an educational and environmental resource. His drawing showed wetlands, forests, meadows, filtration basins, outdoor "classrooms," trails, wildflower beds, and a butterfly garden.
GA officials were amazed.
"That is when we knew we had something special," Connor said.
The idea of a wetlands learning area and community resource captured the imaginations of the trustees and key fund-raisers interested in environmental issues.
Moving the athletic fields and developing the Preserve accounted for just over $7 million of the $53 million spent on Phase 1 of the plan.
Connor said Wallace Robert's lead architect, Maartin Pesch, helped the school take a fresh look at the Wissahickon, which had been a part of the campus since GA moved from Germantown to Fort Washington in 1965.
Then, Connor said, "something like the Wissahickon Creek was seen as a threat rather than an opportunity."
Pesch studied the school's old campus plan and asked: "Why aren't you connecting to this creek? It's an incredible resource."
His plan draws attention to the creek, and a new middle and upper school building provides dramatic views of it.
"The theme of water was something he latched on to right away," Connor said. The new athletic fields have retention basins and delivery systems that carry runoff to wet meadows of native grasses that slow and cleanse the water before it flows into the Wissahickon.
The new middle and high school building, which was built to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's energy and environmental design standards, has a roof covered with the flowering plant sedum and can be used for classes about water management.
But the Preserve is at the heart of the changes.
The nearby Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association was among many organizations that helped GA with it.
"We are delighted, delighted with this new Preserve," said Anne B. Standish, the watershed's director of development and communications. "GA included us in the planning process from the beginning."
The new athletic fields were in use by May. Once the flood plain returned to its natural state, cattails sprouted, and new bird species arrived.
The academy will invite the Community Partnership School - the private elementary school for low-income students that GA opened in North Philadelphia in 2006 with Project HOME - and other schools to bring students on field trips.
A faculty team is developing a comprehensive environmental curriculum, but teachers already are incorporating the Preserve in lesson plans.
"They put their boots on," Connor said, "and walk out."
To view Germantown Academy's master campus plan, go to