By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
UPPER EAST SIDE — Fifth graders planted tomatoes, leeks, basil and zucchini on Tuesday morning at the ribbon cutting for P.S. 6's Eric Dutt Eco-Center.
With its 800-square-foot greenhouse, solar panels, weather station, turtle pond and planting area for grapes, apple and pear trees and other edible items to be served in the school's cafeteria, the $1.7 million project is billed as the first public school rooftop eco-center of its kind.
Many P.S. 6 kids wore tied-dyed T-shirts in honor of Dutt, a beloved science who dreamed up having a rooftop greenhouse five years ago — shortly before he unexpectedly died in 2007 of a heart condition coming home from a school field trip.
His memory inspired teachers, parents and students to bring his vision to life.
"It's going to be awesome," said fifth grader Henry Binder, 10, who with his friend, Daniel Jacobson, raised more than $250 for the project by selling $2 bracelets. "It's going to be a great place for the young kids — not us because we're graduating — to learn."
"This is how we're remembering Eric Dutt," Daniel, 10, said. "He was the best."
Kids sold lemonade to raise money for the rooftop. One third grader convinced Crumbs Bake Shop to sell tied-dyed cupcakes for the cause. Parents hosted cocktail fundraisers and donated time and money.
Marcia Sudolsky, a P.S. 6 parent and president of the alumni association, who co-chaired the planning committee with her husband, David, got the whole family involved. Her son, Alex, now 14, kicked things off by raising thousands of dollars by selling eco-friendly compact fluorescent light bulbs in the school's courtyard to locals — when he was 10 years old.
The project grew from Dutt's initial vision of a $50,000 greenhouse to a $400,000 project that later more than doubled in cost, Sudolsky explained. The biggest expense was reinforcing the roof, she said.
"[It is] an opportunity to open young minds across the city to green education in ways we didn't originally think possible," said Sudolsky.
Now the school has another indoor classroom inside the greenhouse and will use the outdoor space for classes, as well, such as art and English to do projects about the greenery, Sudolsky said.
All told, the school raised $250,000. The city kicked in the rest, hoping to use the eco-center as a model project for immersing elementary students in science citywide.
Dutt's widow, Kathryn Hammill, who designed a logo for T-shirts to help raise money for the project was "ecstatic" with the center.
"My husband didn't want to teach inside a classroom," said Hammill, whose 3-year-old son, Luca, helped her cut the ribbon. "He was all about hands-on. Children should be standing and learning."
She recalled how his students compost at home and bring their trash into school as a way to learn about how much garbage families produce.
The school developed a fruit fly problem because of it, but the lesson was worth it, P.S. 6 principal Lauren Fontana said. He was considered a "rock star" at the school, she added.
Fontana said that the years-long commitment of her staff, parents and students might not be easily replicable, which is why she is hoping next year to work with other schools coordinating visits — perhaps weekly after-school or weekend programs — to P.S. 6's rooftop.
"I wish every student could have this opportunity," Fontana said.
Elected officials who helped secure funding for the project were also hopeful that the center could help train the future generation of eco-problem solvers.
"We passed a law to reduce our carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030," City Councilman Dan Garodnick said. "If we're going to put that into action, these are the kids that need to be engaged."
Bess Daniel, 10, who is graduating from P.S. 6 this year, already plans to visit the rooftop next year. "I really like how we're going to be able to eat all the tomatoes and other plants and then it's going to be composted and used for the new plants. It's a cycle."