Green Roof Big Winner

by Briana Warsing

Islanders turned out to vote, and PS/IS 217 will get a green roof.

And there will be a community-wide celebration of that success in the schoolyard on Wednesday (May 13) from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m.

Over the course of 10 days, 2,140 residents of City Council District 5, including 362 Islanders, turned out to vote for projects proposed in Council Member Ben Kallos’ Participatory Budgeting (PB) competition. The top vote-getter in the million-dollar contest was the green roof for PS/IS 217, getting the nod from over a third of all voters. PS 151 came in second for its green roof. Each won $500,000.

Christina Delfico, founder of IDig2Learn, said, “Council Member Ben Kallos told me we got more votes with our 845 than the total who showed up last year, which was around 500.”

How did that number more than quadruple this year? In a joint email, here’s how Girl Scout Troop Leaders Aiesha Eleusizov and Janine Schaefer answer that question.

“Girl Scout Troops 3001 and 3244 dedicated countless hours at the subway, in front of the school, at the Earth Day event, and simply walking down the street passing out bookmarks about the community projects. They met with constituents at our local Expo, [where they] drew pictures about the Green Roof. They made and posted a YouTube video on social media to encourage voting [for the project], and spread the word to Island residents. None of the Girl Scouts who worked could vote in the participatory budget [they are under 16], but through their persistence and determination, they were able to raise half a million dollars toward a Green Roof in our community. This has been an excellent opportunity for our youth to learn, first-hand, the power of the vote, the community, and working hard to achieve your dreams.”

A Group Effort

PTA co-presidents Olga Shchuchinov and Natalia Starkova mobilized the PTA Green Roof social media campaign and kept churning out fresh news. Green Roof press links and benefits of educational Green Roofs were on the school’s Facebook page and the PTA’s blog. These constant notifications also explained the PB vote process and gave vote locations and times. They even went old-school and sent flyers home to parents.

The Green Roof Project was showcased at the school’s Silent Auction, and there were posters about it all over the school.

PTA member and designer Nathalie Chetrit created flyers and the green bookmarks that the Girl Scouts passed out. She even made a version for the Upper East Side and Midtown East to remember their Island neighbor.

Delfico also credits RIRA President Jeff Escobar for featuring the project in all of his RIRA Columns, sending email blasts to RIRA members, and hosting Delfico at a RIRA meeting where she educated Common Council members on the project.

She says the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation also got into the mix, and mentioned the PB voting process repeatedly via Facebook.

The Roosevelt Island Garden Club was active in promoting the project. President Ali Schwayri explains, “Roosevelt Island Garden Club’s mission includes serving as a resource and educator of all things green and sustainable on the Island. It was an absolute pleasure to support PS/IS 217’s Green Roof project, and to invite our membership to understand the Participatory Budgeting process and to mobilize. We believe in the benefits of the Green Roof for our community, and I speak for Secretary Julia Ferguson and the entire membership when I say we all look forward to sharing our expertise and passion for this important project.”

Delfico lists the Roosevelt Island Parents’ Network and the Main Street Theatre as other organizations whose memberships were mobilized.

It didn’t hurt that City Council Member Ben Kallos and his team were often on-Island during the PB process. Delfico says, “They were always on hand to explain the process and answer questions.”

Earth Day was a wonderful coincidence. The Island’s Earth Day event took place on the final vote day under hospitable skies, and 217 votes were captured at the Visitor Kiosk in Tramway Plaza.

Delfico distributed flyers to RIRA, the Girl Scouts, the Roosevelt Island Garden Club, and Island residence buildings.

Deep Roots

According to PS 217 Sustainability Coordinator Ursula Fokine, “The [idea for the] green roof came partially out of Christina’s [Delfico’s] iDig2Learn, but also in her conversations with the school about how we can engage students more in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning. It developed from there.”

Delfico’s version is, “My memory is that Ursula Fokine and I were standing in the hallway outside the school office, talking about children’s responses to plants and iDig2Learn, and she motioned her eyes upward and smiled as she said to me – 'What about the roof?' And I said, 'Really? That would be great. We can do that.'" The project grew from that small seed.


In 2013, Principal Mandana Beckman, with support from the PTA, applied to the Manhattan Borough President’s office for a $35,000 Green Roof feasibility study, and won.

Next, the School Construction Authority (SCA) met with school leadership to discuss what could be built on the roof to further 21st century learning. SCA toured the roof, and did a thorough safety analysis and project-cost report with input from engineers, architects, designers, 217 educators, and the school’s custodial team.

The SCA deemed the project feasible, and it moved to the funding stage – a huge win.

As for PB, Delfico says, “We never tried getting on the Participatory Budget ballot before this one in 2015. I had never heard of it.”

This year, Delfico was a PB delegate and proposed the Green Roof project for consideration on the PB ballot. She said, “Kallos is super-impressed with our rally, and we are sharing the news with all the politicians, who are equally excited and taking note of our Island voice.”


In February 2015, Beckman applied to Borough President Brewer’s office for $1.5 million in capital funding, and will hear the results next month. Green roofs are typically funded by the Borough President’s office and the City Council, working together.


The SCA will not start the bidding process until all the funds are committed. The faster the commitment, the sooner the bid process starts. Winning funds in 2015 means access to them in 2016; likewise, winning funds in 2016, means availability in 2017.

Traditionally, a full design in partnership with the school takes 4-5 months, then bidding and awarding a contract takes 2-3 months. Building the green roof takes about a year. That means that 2018 is the earliest that all this effort could come to fruition.


PTA co-Presidents Natalia Starkova and Olga Shchuchinov said, “PS/IS 217 has a strong academic track and a Gifted and Talented program, and we are growing our STEM programming, so this win brings us one step closer to creating a 21st-century teaching hub.”

Sustainability Coordinator Fokine was moved by the community collaboration. She said, “The mobilization of this community to make that happen speaks to the positive and forceful impact we can all have for change.” Delfico seconds that, saying, “The story is the strength of the Island voice. Roosevelt Islanders have a choice to use their voice with a vote.”

Fokine explained, “We need to prepare our students to live in a sustainable world. Our Green Roof will not only provide an outdoor classroom for students and a haven for wildlife, it will be a model for the city, so it can be a thriving, healthful, efficient and welcoming place to live and learn for generations to come. A green roof will involve students in the hands-on learning that will shape their attitudes about the importance of sustaining the environment. We are thrilled about this investment in our future.”

Diane Levitt, the Director of K-12 Education at Cornell Tech, is excited, too. She acknowledged that she hasn’t had a conversation with the steering committee yet, and that it’s early, but she has a lot of ideas. “There is a real opportunity for physical computing with sensors,” says Levitt, explaining, “A sensor is a thing that might detect moisture or sunlight. It is a physical thing that collects data and speaks through a wireless connection or small computer. The physical sensors bring information into the computer and enable us to make decisions about watering, for example. There is a lot of opportunity there.”

Levitt and Cornell Tech have connected PS 217 to a consultant. Together they are building a project-based learning unit. Levitt says, “What’s interesting about this it that the question they’ve asked, that they’re building this unit around, is 'Can we make Roosevelt Island energy-independent?' And I think that really ties to the Green Roof.”

Tags: Briana Warsing PS/IS 217 Participatory Budgeting Environment

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