Midtown Raleigh News

Working gardens into schools

Jodi Riedel, an agriculture teacher at Wakefield High School, says that even after 11 years, she is always surprised by the “agricultural illiteracy of our youth.”

“It is ridiculous how many of them have never eaten a radish,” Riedel said.

Interest in eradicating this type of illiteracy seems to be growing.

Last weekend, more than 200 teachers, parents, city planners, town leaders and community activists sacrificed a beautiful spring morning to sit in windowless rooms at the fourth annual Dig In workshop. This year’s theme was “weaving edible landscapes into the fabric of Wake County.” Sessions focused on community gardens, urban agriculture and school gardens.

Judging by the lively discussion in the school garden sessions, parents and teachers are anxious for every school to have a garden.

“The school garden is great,” says Sheree Vodicka, director of Advocates for Health in Action, the organization that hosted Dig In. “But unless it gets incorporated into the curriculum, it is a missed opportunity.”

Revamping curriculum is a daunting challenge, but some schools and teachers are making great strides toward that goal.

Brent Miller, a teacher at Enloe High School, runs an after school CONCERT garden program that lines up with the N.C. Standard Course of Study. At-risk youth participate in activities that tie into science and math – students are so busy digging in the dirt and tasting new foods they hardly notice they are learning academics.

‘Everybody likes to dig’

Will Stevens, who teaches religion at The Franciscan School, frequently takes his students out to the school’s gardens. Valerie MacNabb, the parent volunteer who manages the gardens, says Stevens’ enthusiasm is wonderful and his students love to be out there.

Stevens says the garden is a great tool. He says he can talk forever to his seventh- and eighth-graders about dignity of work, about how farming is very difficult and what life is like for a migrant worker, but they don’t seem to get it.

But if he has the same conversation with them after they’ve worked in the garden, they really engage. He’ll ask them what they think would be fair payment for the work they performed and what would be a fair price to charge for their produce. That leads to a meaningful discussion about income and living expenses.

Curriculum integration is a little easier for magnet elementary schools such as Powell and Underwood; they are able to offer electives that take advantage of the opportunities a garden provides.

Amy Gilbert, a parent volunteer, says the Underwood garden elective choices have increased steadily since the school started with a nature and ecology elective in 2009. This year, even the Spanish students are getting into the garden by growing plants indigenous to countries they study.

“Everybody likes to dig in the dirt,” said Cristen Laurens, a Powell intervention teacher who does double duty as a parent volunteer. That makes it easy to engage the students in many different subject areas.

This year, Powell offered eight garden electives, including a course that adapts the Lego robotics curriculum to create a computer-designed sustainable watering system using their rain barrels.

Enlisting partners

For any school, though, starting and maintaining a garden requires dedication. “If there is not a core group of teachers, parents and administrators who are involved, it won’t succeed,” warns Gerardo Serrano of Sixth Sun, the nonprofit organization that helped Powell build its garden.

Many schools enlist community partners to keep up the momentum.

In 2010, parent volunteer Julia Woodson and a few other Brier Creek Elementary moms decided it would be fun to have a garden at the school. They now have nine, tended by PTA members.

Principal Sandy Chambers has set a goal to integrate plant-based learning across the curriculum, and the school has partnered with The Chef’s Academy, a Morrisville culinary school. Culinary staff and students teach the elementary students about the foods growing in their gardens.

The Moore Square Middle School garden was established in 2009 by the Cherry Huffman Architecture Firm, which is now RATIO, because they wanted to give back to the neighborhood. RATIO continues to financially support the project and their employees still volunteer in the garden. Gab Smith, who co-founded the garden, is as passionate as ever about volunteering in the garden and running the after school program.

Most of these school gardens give back to the community, too, by donating some of their bounty to the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. That is particularly meaningful to Stevens’ students.

“They aren’t just asking their parents for food for a food drive,” Stevens said. “A class will plant carrots, and six weeks later they come out and pick those carrots and they know those carrots are going to make a meal. The kids see the direct connection.”