A small project started last fall to remember a beloved North Charleston teacher has bloomed into a major effort to build a sustainable garden that will be held up as a model for other schools and businesses.

"What has happened with the memorial garden project has been nothing short of amazing," said Tara Snyder, president of the Charleston County School of the Arts dance boosters.

Cecilia Slowinski, who taught dance at the school from the time it opened in 1995, died of cancer Aug. 31, and the school community wanted to memorialize her.

Senior visual arts major Joey Dixon of West Ashley was inspired by photos of Slowinski to create a sheet-metal sculpture, which the dance booster club decided to use as the centerpiece for a garden in Slowinski's memory. Slowinski, who was married to School of the Arts social studies teacher Alan Brehm, loved the outdoors, so a garden was a natural fit.

The club started raising money and targeted a location: a grassy courtyard often saturated with stormwater runoff from the surrounding high school building and the administration building the School of the Arts shares with Academic Magnet High School.

"As you might imagine, we are in a new school, so there wasn't a lot of money left over for landscaping," Snyder said.

Visual arts teacher Marie Nichols started talking about planting a garden soon after the school's January 2010 move.

"After Cecilia died, I knew that the dancers were raising money and wanted to do a garden," said Nichols, who worked closely with Slowinski on school productions and other projects for 13 years. "We decided to join forces and come up with a plan."

A gardening hobbyist, Nichols said she didn't have the know-how to proceed, but "I knew enough to find the experts," starting with David Joyner, a natural resources agent for Clemson Extension, whom she met when her students painted a mural about preserving Noisette Creek.

She told him about the storm-drainage issues in the courtyard.

"Dave started looking at it, and he thought there was a way to fix the problem naturally with plants and make it into a beautiful garden," Nichols said. "He came in and really believed in the project. He's the one who made the whole thing blossom."

Joyner works with the extension's Carolina Clear program, whose mission is to educate the public about stormwater runoff and pollution. Carolina Clear also is administrator of the Ashley Cooper Stormwater Education Consortium, which consists of 11 counties and municipalities and community partners.

The consortium has created permanent exhibits to showcase best management practices and thought "it sounded like an ideal place to do another demonstration site," Joyner said. "Schools are wonderful platforms to educate not only students but their parents and the region in general."

In addition to the stormwater problem, the project had many requirements. It needed an area for the Slowinski sculpture, 12th-grade students wanted a senior lawn and teachers wanted an outdoor classroom.

Joyner decided the project needed a designer.

He involved Elias Deeb, project manager of the nearby Oak Terrace Preserve neighborhood, who has an interest in sustainable design and low-impact development. Deeb, in turn, suggested landscape architect J.R. Kramer, who works out of his home in Oak Terrace.

"We live here. We work here," said Kramer, who owns Remark Studio with his wife, Holly. "We have a vested interest in this. North Charleston really wants to be a green city. That's why we moved here in the first place."

Kramer's plans call for a winding path surrounded by indigenous plants that soak up water but are also drought resistant. The path, made of pervious pavers and bridges, will allow water to soak through and redirect runoff. River rock will help with drainage, and because Slowinski liked to paint rocks, "to a degree, it is a canvas for the students to add their own artwork," Joyner said.

A gathering area will provide space for seniors to hang out during lunch.

"It can be used for so many things," Nichols said. "It can be an outdoor lab for science classes, artists can draw there, creative writers can write. It will be nice for the whole school."

The project will take two to three years and cost as much as $50,000.

"We are trying to get the cost down to a more manageable level," Joyner said.

Kramer, for instance, has worked at a steeply discounted rate, he said. "Ultimately, we are optimistic, but we still have a ways to go."

About $6,000 has been collected from booster club fundraisers and donations from the school's PTSA and the North Charleston Beautification Committee. Several school clubs also are raising money, and organizers have applied for grants.

When finished, the garden will be a model project as well as a memorial, organizers said.

"We have a design for a beautiful project, and it sounds like something Ms. Slowinski would have been 100 percent behind," Joyner said.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.