NEW YORK—Students and teachers get fresh air, fresh food, and learn in new ways while building and tending school gardens. What’s not to like?
“I just love having this space,” said Abbey Novio, ninth-grade science teacher at the Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Gravesend, Brooklyn.
“In addition to growing things with the students, just being able to come out here and use this as part of science class and ecology, being able to have a space where there’s actually plants and bugs instead of concrete around the building, I think is really rare for a school in Brooklyn.”
The garden at the school—10 raised beds and a 15-year-old fig tree in a courtyard, with other raised beds on the side of the building—enables teachers like Novio to create hands-on learning.
During ecology class, Novio brings students to the courtyard for a food chain scavenger hunt. Students search for worms, ants, birds, and spiders, while the teacher leads a discussion oo decomposition.
On a recent school day, Novio, other teaching staff, and a gaggle of 11th-graders were putting together compost bins during an intensive at the school, which is a week where students focus exclusively on one subject.
“I like this,” said Alex King, cleanly hammering together two parts of a wooden frame. King moved to the United States two years ago. “I used to do this in Russia,” he said, referring both to working with tools and gardening.
“It’s good because we’re learning how to build stuff and using it for the environment,” said Patrick Maje, who is contemplating growing tomatoes at home.
Kimberly Martes fondly recalls making kale chips in cooking class. “It’s fun, and you benefit from it, because we grew kale and we ate it,” she said.
Recently, the school received a grant from Cornell University to install a large, unheated hoop house, which will allow it to grow plants year-round. The school earlier received a grant from the Citizens Committee for New York City, an organization that awards grants of $500 to $3,000 to community projects, including school gardens.
Sabine Bernards, program coordinator with Citizens Committee, said the money is used for a range of items, including wood, dirt, seeds, tools, and printed handouts.
“A lot of people don’t fund things that aren’t nonprofits,” said Bernards, “so we’re able to give funding to people who aren’t traditionally able to access a lot of other sources of funding.”
The number of school gardens in the city has massively increased over the past two years, from about 45 to 230, according to Andrew Barrett, school garden operations associate with GreenThumb, an organization within the Department of Parks & Recreation
GreenThumb is a partner of Grow to Learn: the Citywide School Garden Initiative started two years ago with support from the Mayor’s Fund.
Grow to Learn gives out grants for up to $2,000 for schools to start or expand gardens. Meanwhile, Barrett supports school garden by organizing the delivery of garden supplies and providing technical support. He also gives workshops on topics such as seed starting. Attendees receive basic supplies including two-foot grow lights and seed starting flats.
“The idea is you come attend the workshop, learn how to do something, and get the minimum amount of supplies to start a school garden,” said Barrett.
Food Awareness and New Gardens
“Kids get a really good grasp on where food comes from,” said Joni Blackburn, mother of an eighth grader at Tompkins Square Middle School on the Lower East Side. “Our main emphasis is on edible gardening and food awareness.”
After a science teacher began gardening with planters in an area accessible only by climbing out a classroom window, the school recently opened a rooftop garden, called the Fifth Street Farm.
Food produced by the garden goes into cafeteria meals at least once a month, according to parent of students at the Earth School, which is housed in the same building, the P.S. 64 Robert Simon School complex.
Architect Michael Arad said parents had been suggesting to him and other leaders of the project what to include in the garden, such as a beehive, chickens, and a weather station.
“How this place will be used—by teachers, by students, by parents—I think is really open-ended, intentionally so,” he said. “We didn’t want to say ‘This is the one program you can do here’ and nothing else could happen.”
Multiple classes will utilize the garden, including Earth Studies in pre-K through fifth grade, middle school science, and at least one art class.
“‘I can’t wait to get the kids up here because of the vistas and the possibilities of so many things for art,’” Blackburn remembers an art teacher telling her some time ago.
The Fifth Street Farm project has been in the works for six years, and was funded by state Sen. Daniel Squadron, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and Councilwoman Rosie Mendez.
“We’re going to start working here,” said Taiyo Dejong, a sixth-grader at Tompkins Square Middle School, which is housed in the same building. “I’m really looking forward to it.” Dejong planted potatoes, basil, and sage at the garden while attending the Earth School.
Another new garden recently opened at the Mott Haven Academy Charter School in the Bronx, part of the school’s efforts to incorporate food awareness into the school day.
“We can teach kids where food comes from and how to grow it, and then have them harvest the food and move it to our kitchen to make it part of our meals,” said Principal Jessica Nauiokas.
The garden will fit in nicely with the school, which forgoes the traditional lunch line. Instead students sit at communal tables with serving bowls.
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