Kirkbride’s Junior flower power

Lisa Yau and her winning fifth graders stand with their Liberty Bell project and National Historical Park ranger Joanna Schillizzi.

A team of students from Lisa Yau’s fifth-grade class stood at the end of the third-floor hall of Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary School, 1501 S. Seventh St., Feb. 18 and delivered a prepared speech about the Liberty Bell. Its weight, its crack, the yoke, the legends and myths – they were detailing the inspiration for their Best in Show-winning project at one of many citywide Junior Flower Shows.

The Philadelphia Flower Show is a cherished, annual endeavor from the 1827-founded Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. And the Junior Flower Show is a smart way to include children from kindergarten to senior year in the PHS tradition.

In 22 “classes” (or categories), arborists, agriculturalists, farmers, florists, and artists attempt to capture the essence of the class challenge, which could range from a floral arrangement to wearable art to totem polls and photography.

“PHS is an organization that is really committed to making Philly more beautiful, healthier, and more sustainable,” Matt Rader, the new president of PHS, a former executive director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, and a former long-term resident of 10th and Morris streets, said last week. “We have activities and programs that touch every neighborhood and beyond. There’s a whole community and competitions among those communities, and through the Junior Flower Show, we’re bringing the opportunity to be a part of that community to the kids.”

Kindergarteners created “Crafty Creatures” – butterflies, birds, turtles, and squirrels using just pine cones, twigs and seeds. Classroom projects were also laid out in a guide for students: “Use your imagination to construct your own National Park. Design a park that would be an escape for your friends and neighbors,” reads the “Design Your Park” challenge, and they did. A group of fifth- and sixth-grade students made incredibly-crafted dioramas with moss, bodies of water, paths, benches, and swings.

Every Flower Show has a theme, and this one celebrates the Centennial of the National Park Service, which was established in an “organic” act of Congress in 1916. Independence National Historical Park, the famously historic stretch of Old City between Walnut and Market streets, is also an NPS park – something folks don’t always remember. The NPS preserves and protects American cultural as well as natural treasures.

“Yellowstone National Park [concentrated in the NW corner of Wyoming] is one of the crown jewels of natural areas, and Independence is like the crown jewel of cultural parks because it’s the birthplace of America,” Historical Park ranger Joanna Schillizzi said. NPS parks are “the most spectacular places in the U.S. for the enjoyment of all people,” added Schillizzi, who beamed as Yau’s students presented details of their project.

The fifth-grade class had created a triptych on cardboard, a bell shaped with a celebration of each state’s national flower. The Flower Show, taking place March 5-13 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the Chinatown area, will be a celebration of parks across the country, and Schillizzi said regional gardeners, craftsmen, and landscape designers have been calling her historic post with many questions. She shared one project that she’d heard about.

“A garden club is doing a tablescape, and their theme is ‘Dinner at a historic home,’ and they chose Mesa Verde [National Park in Montezuma County, Colorado],” she explained, not exactly the historic estates, say in East Fairmount Park, one would imagine. “It’s an ancient home, and someone from Mesa Verde met with them to advise them on the pottery they would’ve used.”

Some pupils at Kirkbride embraced the same spirit. Winners were determined if they were “consistent with the theme, creative use of materials, a good mix of color, and creativity in interpreting the theme,” Rader said. “A lot of kids have spent a lot of time really trying to embrace the spirit of the thing and did their best to learn a bit and compete. It’s amazing to see.”

“The Liberty Bell is an iconic symbol of American Independence,” one of Yau’s fifth-graders read.

They rattled off a few well-known facts and a few that might surprise one – like “it weights 940 kg [or, almost 2,100 pounds] and the crack is about 25 inches long and each year more than one million visitors” flock to the bell, another student said.

Thinh Thach has been teaching seventh- and eighth-grade math at Kirkbride for nearly nine years, and he took the lead on organizing the many efforts from different grades and different-disciplined classrooms.

“I wanted them to be exposed to nature and gardening, and I’m working on a gardening project for the school, too,” Thach, also the board president of Whitman’s Cambodian Association, said. “Once they saw one or two go up, they got more excited, and it just builds up. I told [Ms. Yau] that she’s going to win because [their Liberty Bell project] is very detailed.”

Principal Rebecca Julien, in her first year at the Passyunk Square school but a three-block neighbor of the institution, said “the Junior Flower show has just highlighted what our instructional program does so well, which is integrating multiple disciplines in the areas of science and the arts, even math concepts were highlighted.”

She said a PHS partnership has also helped prove to her students that they can access great organizations beyond their walls, showing them new careers and connections.

“We can’t let what we don’t have hinder what our kids deserve,” Julien said. “We can’t let what we don’t have limit what we can provide access to our kids, so these partnerships are really crucial.”

The learners beamed as they were given a purple ribbon by Thach and, after Yau’s eight speakers finished, she asked if they could all come out for a photo opportunity because they were all so excited by all the buzz. With more than a couple dozen fifth-graders smiling behind their Liberty Bell project, it was clear that Thach and Lau had done a remarkable job of energizing Kirkbride morale.

“It’s super exciting,” Rader said, noting that more than 4,000 volunteers and competitors get involved with the Flower Show.

Junior Flower Show Best in Shows will make their way to the Convention Center in the next month.

“Now competitors from the Junior Flower show end up in the real show – the more people that we engage, the stronger it gets,” Rader added.

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117. Comment at