The Other 60 Percent

Planting school gardens…everywhere

Under cloudy skies on a recent Friday morning, 13-year-old B’Azsae Gale concentrated on burying a feisty irrigation hose in the soil of a white modular planter that is part of a new “learning garden” on Denver’s West Campus.

Students at Denver Public Schools' West Campus pour dirt in the new learning garden.
Students at Denver Public Schools’ West Campus pour dirt in the new learning garden.

As Gale pushed the hose down, calling for more soil from wheelbarrow-toting classmates, he mused about the vegetables he hopes to plant.

“Let’s plant some carrots,” he told Tighe Hutchins, community outreach manager for The Kitchen Community, the Boulder non-profit that created the sleek, modern-looking learning gardens.

“Carrots! Yum. What about broccoli?” asked Hutchins.

“Yeah, broccoli, and some bell peppers,” said Gale, who attends West Generation Academy.

The West Campus learning garden will give 1,200 students at four schools access to fresh produce and hands-on lessons in science, math and health. But it’s just one small part of The Kitchen Community’s ambitious plan to create 180 learning gardens in Colorado, Chicago, Los Angeles and other communities in 2013.

This pledge, which has been recognized by the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, will more than quadruple the 55 learning gardens installed by The Kitchen Community in 2011 and 2012. The Kitchen Community’s goal is to connect kids to real food and combat childhood obesity, which now affects 14.2 percent of Colorado children and 17 percent of American children.

Encouraging healthy living

In addition to facilitating academic lessons, the learning gardens, a series of curved white planting beds made of durable food-grade plastic and interspersed with boulders and benches, are designed to encourage spontaneous play and casual observation of the growing process.

“We want them to be right beside the playground, never hidden behind a fence,” said Dominic Thompson, who leads Colorado region business development at The Kitchen Community.

School garden resources

Colorado

National

At Lafayette’s Ryan Elementary, which got a 4-bed learning garden a year ago, Principal Tobey Basoff likens the garden to an experiential learning field trip in which students never have to leave school grounds.

“Some kids don’t have access to any gardening whatsoever…They get very, very, very excited,” said Basoff. “In our garden, they’re very much encouraged to touch and play and smell.”

Getting kids to eat (and enjoy) veggies is also part of the plan, and research shows school gardens help get the job done. For example, a 2007 study in what is now called the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that sixth-graders who participated in garden-based nutrition programs increased their servings of fruits and vegetables more than students who didn’t participate.

A 2002 study published in the same journal found that a garden-based nutrition program increased fourth-graders’ preferences for certain vegetables that had been planted in their school garden, plus zucchini, which wasn’t present in their garden.

Farm to table then garden to school

The Kitchen Community was founded in 2011 as the philanthropic arm of The Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant that opened in Boulder in 2004 and added a Denver location in 2012. The  restaurant was founded by former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Kimbal Musk, his wife Jen Lewin, who designed the learning garden planters, and Chef Hugo Matheson.

The non-profit, with its emphasis on simple, scalable design and rapid growth, has the air of the high-tech start-up. But instead of making millions, its mission has more to do with raising millions then giving it away in the form of garden infrastructure and implementation.

With the help of corporate sponsorships, grants and other funding secured by The Kitchen Community or its partners, most of the 180 new learning gardens will be installed for free at schools with 60 percent or more low-income students. The city of Chicago has earmarked $1 million of unspent NATO Summit money for learning gardens at 60 district schools in 2013. On average, a learning garden costs about $15,000.

The organization’s extensive application process, which requires the formation of a garden team and letters of support from the school’s principal and the district’s grounds supervisor, is meant to guarantee each school’s commitment to the project.

Schools that have fewer than 60 percent low-income students are also eligible for the gardens, but typically have to raise some of the money themselves. The Kitchen Community gives them discounts equal to the percentage of low-income students attending the school, up to 50 percent.

Making sure gardens grow

The Kitchen Community’s main focus is providing schools with the hardware for their gardens, including the planters, benches, art poles, boulders and shade structures. Typically, tying the garden to curriculum and making sure it’s well-used is the school’s responsibility, often in partnership with a local gardening organization.

Students at Denver's West Campus work to construct the new learning garden.
Students at Denver’s West Campus work to construct the new learning garden.

At Ryan Elementary, which raised $11,000 for its learning garden, the Longmont-based Growe Foundation has been that partner. Executive director Bryce Brown said the organization helps train teachers on how to integrate school gardens into the curriculum and engage parents and students in school garden activities.

Basoff said in addition to planting and harvesting vegetables,  students have used the garden as a destination for sketching, a starting point for graphing exercises and to learn about marketing. Some students are currently planning to create books about the garden using an iPad application. Plus, there’s a service learning component because extra produce is donated to the local food bank at Sister Carmen Community Center.

On Denver’s West Campus, the recent garden prep session was a fitting extension of eighth-grader B’Azsae Gale’s “Tinkering Technology” class, which examines how humans interact with tools and technology.

“Right now we’re learning how to use tools and stuff, so this really helps because we’re using drills and shovels and maybe hammers,” said Gale.

Brown said school gardens, whether The Kitchen Community’s learning gardens or some other kind, are a great educational tool, but added, “There really does need to be the support for parents and teachers to keep them going long term.”

Rebuilding in Alamosa

After three Alamosa elementary schools were consolidated into two new buildings on one campus in 2011, local garden advocates had to start a school garden from scratch. There was plenty of space- 14,000 square feet- but the soil was salty, the land was drab and there were drainage problems.

The learning garden at Alamosa Elementary School.
The learning garden at Alamosa Elementary School.

As part of the garden redevelopment effort, Alamosa Elementary got a 4-bed learning garden from The Kitchen Community last fall.

The 1,000-student school, where 84 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, may be exactly the kind of place where The Kitchen Community hopes to have an impact.

Victoria Bruner, director of Alamosa Community Gardens, which helps run the school garden program, said although agricultural crops, including potatoes, barley, quinoa, lettuce, spinach and carrots, are a major industry in the San Luis Valley, the eating habits of residents often don’t reflect it.

“There’s definitely obesity issues here as well,” she said.

One day, Bruner hopes the school garden, which includes the learning garden beds plus some raised wood and ground-level beds, will  provide at least some of the lettuce for the cafeteria salad bars.

So far, the learning gardens have yielded the most robust crops because of their healthier soil. In addition, they have helped create an attractive visual focus in the developing school garden.

“If you take the beds out it would be this boring piece of flat land,” she said. “The teachers aren’t going to use it if it’s not inviting.”

 

 

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”

 



Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”