NoDa business owners step up to help school create outdoor spaces amid COVID-19

When Joey and I were asked if we’d help come up with some ideas for landscaping and hardscaping at my former elementary school, I couldn’t have been more excited. Now we hope to get you just as excited, resulting in funds, time – or both!

I have great memories of Villa Heights Elementary. I currently live just a couple miles from the school and as a broker, I’ve worked for a lot of clients in the Villa Heights neighborhood over the years, most recently selling a triplex for a client that’s directly across the street. I’ve driven by the school so many times, but haven’t ever pulled in the lot or walked around the grounds. It’s been at least 40 years!

I went to Villa Heights for two years: 1976 and 1977. An older building had been replaced in 1975, so we were essentially the first ones using the new facilities. There was a definite hippie vibe at that time, and it was operated in an “open school” format. As I recall, the library was in the center of the building, with beanbag chairs for seating. When we had to move from one location to another, “Up, Up and Away In My Beautiful Balloon” played over the intercom, and we had to get where we were going by the time the song ended. (Never heard it? Google and have a listen – you won’t be disappointed.) Our classes were referred to as “family groups,” and our classrooms were divided by partial walls, bookcases, and other softer dividing lines, instead of full floor-to-ceiling walls. Each classroom had its own patio, where we spent a lot of our class time.

The school operated for a number of years before being shuttered in 1985. A few years later, it was reused as a TAPS program center, a CMS media services center, and, just a few years ago, a private magnet school.

Villa Heights reopened as part of the CMS family again a couple years ago, but has been slowed yet again by the pandemic. Plans are under way to reopen the doors to students, along with the rest of the CMS system. One component of pandemic planning includes distancing and outdoor activities. Neighbor and close friend Jessika Zimmer’s son attends Villa Heights, and she reached out to us to discuss the needs of the school.

The campus has ample grounds surrounding the school building. Outdoor spaces include the aforementioned patios, an upper sports field and track, an adjacent shaded open field, a lower lawn area next to the cafeteria, and a winding concrete walkway connecting the upper and lower areas. As part of our preliminary plans, we want to create inviting outdoor open spaces for teachers and students: space for class time, spaces to learn about plants and our environment, gardens to put science into hands-on experience, and spaces to just relax and enjoy.

We’ve come up with some basic ideas, like building a raised-bed garden adjacent to the cafeteria where students can plant and raise veggies and flowers, and creating a “walking orchard” along the pathway that’s lined with apple, peach, pear, and other fruit trees that bear in this region. We’d like to place a dozen or more picnic tables in the upper open field to create outdoor classroom and dining options. In an open area beside the front door, we’ll add two large fig trees, and murals painted by local neighborhood artists on a couple walls. Finally, we’ll do a simple cleanup, trimming existing trees and shrubs.

Where do you fit in? We’ll need funds and we’ll need volunteers! We plan on doing a few fundraisers, perhaps a simple GoFundMe, and we’ll be asking businesses if they’re interested in donating things like paint, landscaping supplies, and lumber. This is a Title I school, so many will likely be interested.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be putting out details and specifics for the fundraisers. We hope you get as excited as we are and hop on board! Keep an eye on our NoDa Company Store Facebook and Instagram pages or visit us at and sign up for our newsletter, where we’ll be keeping everyone in the loop.