To engage and unite Virginians to improve our natural and scenic environment.

JRA gives Denbigh HS’ Courtyard a Makeover!

Denbigh High School Students Restore Underused Courtyard

The James River Association’s Extreme Stream Makeover (ESM) was conducted the week of April 11, 2011 and targeted the Stoney Run watershed, an impaired waterway located within the City of Newport News. The community-wide event focused on three sites, one of which was Denbigh High School (DHS). Thanks to the Beautification and Community Greening grant from Keep Virginia Beautiful, JRA was able to complete a unique project with DHS.

The high school has several underused and neglected interior courtyards, one of which includes a greenhouse connected to a science classroom. In addition to the greenhouse, this courtyard consisted of several large trees, a leaky concrete pond, an old shed, and lots of weedy lawn. The adjacent science class used the courtyard to find worms under the stepping stones, but that was about it. The James River Association (JRA) met with the principal and lead science teacher to determine how this courtyard could become more integrated with their classes and help teach the students about water quality and a variety of native ecosystems.

JRA reached out to the Timmons Group Landscape Architecture and Stormwater team to turn the courtyard into an outdoor learning space for DHS. The design included a rain garden, vegetated swale, 3 rain barrels, a compost bin, native planting beds, and raised beds for vegetable gardening. During the ESM week in April, volunteers helped prepare the courtyard by repairing the pond, preparing the planting beds and rain garden, demolishing the old shed, building the raised beds and the compost bin. Two weeks later, JRA returned to DHS to finish up the work with the help of 180 of their students. The students installed 3 rain barrels and planted 373 plants, including a variety of small native trees, shrubs, grasses, and perennials. Approximately 2,800 square feet of lawn was converted to planting areas. In addition to hands-on involvement, each class received a short educational lesson by JRA staff about rain gardens, native plants, and how all of this affects the health of the James River. Many of the students had never planted anything before and this was a great introduction for them. It also gave students who had experience the opportunity to teach others. Several students were responsible for placing the stones that would direct water from the downspouts to and through the rain gardens, which created an opportunity for them to learn about the flow of water and how the placement of the stones can manipulate the course.

Prior to the makeover, the courtyard’s plant palette had been limited. Now there are over 20 various species of plants on which students can practice their plant identification skills. There are also added benefits for the resident wildlife. Two mallard ducks come to nest in the courtyard every spring. Next year when they return they will be pleasantly surprised with new nesting spaces and plenty of food for their young, thanks to the diversity of plants.

Since the completion of the courtyard it has been warmly welcomed by students and science teachers. By involving the students in the installation they have really taken ownership of the space. They have even started a Courtyard Club that has 10 dedicated students who come out after school once a week to maintain the courtyard. Through this project the students have been inspired to take on the other courtyard at the school to make it a better space.



The event was covered by several media outlets including the following:

  1. Daily-Press (3/25/2011)
  2. Daily-Press (4/13/2011)
  3. WVEC-TV (4/15/2011)
  4. Newport News TV
  5. James River Journal (4/11/2011)
  6. James River Journal (4/16/2011)


JRA received the 2011 Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award for the Extreme Stream Makeover initiative.