A steep incline leading to the weathered brick building is the first thing visitors see when approaching Chillum Elementary School in Prince George's County. The hill was habitually overgrown with weeds in the spring and summer months and a muddy mess when it rained. But, no longer.

Students, school personnel and parents gathered last week to dedicate a drought-resistant garden that now adorns the hill with neat rows of evergreen shrubs and colorful, low-maintenance flowering plants.

Besides its aesthetic and environmental value, the garden has aroused a lot of enthusiasm among the students at Chillum, who have vowed to help weed and protect it.

"It makes the school look good," fourth-grader David Morris said of the garden, which was dedicated to Clara B. Scott, the school's principal until she became ill last fall.

"It is part of the school and it is part of Mrs. Scott too," explained Aaron Burroughs, a sixth-grader.

"We have been learning about the environment in school. If we don't keep up our environment it will be hard to live in the future."

That pride was evident in the songs, poems and essays the children had rehearsed for the occasion, which emphasized caring about nature.

For Principal Dennis Cope, the project has helped raise environmental consciousness at Chillum, and has brought community pride to the surrounding neighborhood, an apartment-complex area that has been the site of open air drug markets.

"It is real important for the kids to have a strong sense of ownership for the school and community itself," Cope said.

"All our students are within walking distance. They come here after school and on weekends to play. It helps their image of themselves, being in a place that they like and are proud of. We make sure they understand about the environment and water conservation. Kids become aware of these things and it has a very strong effect on their lives."

The project, a joint effort of the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission and J H Burton & Sons Landscaping, was prepared as a model to demonstrate to county residents the beauty and effectiveness of a low-maintenance, environmentally-sound garden.

Chillum had already started a revitalization effort on the school grounds by planting wild flowers and shrubs.

When Cope was contacted by WSSC officials, he arranged to have the surrounding apartment complexes help pay the 25 percent of the cost not covered by the WSSC.

The yucca, forsythia, mountain ash, yarrow and petunias lay in a thick mulch on the water-efficient landscape, a site WSSC officials hope will encourage county residents to consider a pretty and simple alternative to more elaborate gardens.

"We have to start rethinking the kinds of things we plant," said Pete Horgarth of J H Burton & Sons, who helped plan the garden and sold the plants at a discount to WSSC. "This requires very little work, mostly weeding. The plants do not exceed the space that we have allotted them and there is very little runoff."

"We are proud of {the garden}. We know it will last because we will take care of it," said sixth-grader Marc Ferguson.