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

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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.”

 

 

student activism

Memphis students present demands on school safety in wake of Parkland shooting

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis students walked out of class last week to call attention to gun violence.

Students presented a list of requests to the Shelby County Schools board related to safety, including improving student discipline practices, hiring more school counselors, offering conflict resolution classes, and help in advocating against giving guns to teachers.

The list was created after walkouts last week at about 20 Memphis high schools in response to the killing of 17 people in February in Parkland, Florida.

Student leaders from five high schools gave a presentation Tuesday evening at a school board meeting, which was met with applause from district leaders.

“We ask that youth are visibly and vocally involved in decision making. We are the ones sitting in the classroom day after day,” said Mallori King, a junior at Ridgeway High School. “Youth voice should not look like tokenism. It should look like equity.”

The walkouts — that received the district’s blessing — also honored the 19th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Since the school shootings in Parkland, students around the country have demanded lawmakers take action against gun violence.

In the students’ words, they want the board to:

  • Stop kicking students out of school instead of figuring out what’s going on.
  • Make time for teachers and administrators to have one-on-one time with students so they can truly get to know them.
  • We need more counselors and support groups.
  • We want a conflict resolution class to be taught in school.
  • We want a class on mental health to be taught in school.
  • Do more to stop sexual harassment and assault from happening in our schools.
  • Please do not arm our teachers. Help us prevent this from happening.
  • Keep supporting student activism and student voice in Shelby County Schools.

Savanah Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School, said support for students, such as more school counselors, and a mental health and conflict resolution class, would most effectively prevent violence in schools.

“People with mental health issues are not the problem. The lack of resources for people with mental health issues, such as myself, is the problem,” she said.

LaDiva Coleman, a senior at Freedom Preparatory Academy, spoke against a recent legislative effort to arm teachers with guns, an effort lawmakers say could make students safer but is adamantly opposed by many educators.

“Arming teachers with guns will not make us safer because we don’t know what’s going in teacher’s minds during the day,” she said. “If a student can shoot other students with guns, so can teachers.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he would review the district’s sexual harassment policy, which he conceded is not specific about student-to-student protocol. He also called the mental health class “a wonderful suggestion.”

Students unrelated to the list of requests asked board members during the meeting to allow a student representative on the board. Hopson said that would be an “easy win” and “would work with the school board to see if that can happen.”

“I’m very impressed and very proud of our students,” Hopson said after the meeting. “They want their voices to be heard.”

The district’s proposed budget, which heads to county commissioners for approval next month, already addresses some of the students’ requests. The $1 billion spending plan includes $4.3 million to hire 35 school counselors, and $800,000 to hire 10 more behavior specialists, who are charged with dealing with root causes of student misbehavior. The Memphis district has the highest rates of student suspension in the state and has been working in recent years to prevent that.

Notably missing from the students’ list was the main proposal county and district leaders have promoted as a key prevention of violence in schools: school resource officers, the armed district employees and sheriff deputies trained to work in schools.

County leaders, including Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, recently produced a report urging the county’s seven school systems to review their emergency plans and take stock of their school resources officers, but didn’t offer specific recommendations.

Hopson’s budget includes $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers, some of whom would be assigned to elementary schools for the first time. That’s on top of the 98 already in all of the district’s high schools and some middle schools.

Student leaders plan to accept more recommendations from students through their website: www.walkoutmemphis.weebly.com.

This story has been updated with comment from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

showing up

Nearly 60 percent of Newark 12th-graders are chronically absent. Today, a conference will tackle the issue.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Last school year, nearly one in three Newark students was chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days. For Newark 12th-graders, the rate was nearly 60 percent.

The problem is the subject of an all-day conference on Tuesday at Rutgers University-Newark called, “Showing Up Matters: Shifting the Culture of Chronic Absenteeism.” Mayor Ras Baraka and Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory are both scheduled to speak.

The conference comes as educators and policymakers nationwide have zeroed in on chronic absenteeism, following research that shows it’s linked to negative outcomes for students including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

New Jersey is one of three dozen states that plans to evaluate and potentially sanction schools based on how many of their students are chronically absent — a measure that counts any day a student misses school, whether the absence is excused, unexcused, or for disciplinary reasons.

Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate is more than double the national average of 13 percent (a rate based on a slightly lower definition of 15 or more absences per year). In response, the district launched an attendance initiative in 2016 to drive down its chronic absenteeism rate, which is worse than in other high-poverty districts across the state. And two different city advisory groups — the Children’s Cabinet and the Newark Youth Policy Board — are focused on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, students who are absent a lot tend to do worse in school. In Newark, as in other districts, students who were chronically absent had lower state test scores and were less likely to graduate. The district found that just 58 percent of ninth-graders who were chronically absent in 2011-2012 earned diplomas four years later, compared to 86 percent of students with good attendance.

A 2017 report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey shed some light on why Newark students miss so much school. Among the reasons cited by dozens of high-school students who were interviewed for the report were: boring classes, coursework they couldn’t keep up with, mental-health challenges, long walks to school, having to hold down jobs or help care for siblings, and neighborhood violence.

“How can we focus on school when someone got killed yesterday?” one student is quoted as saying. “It’s hard. I can’t balance the two. I can’t focus. How am I supposed to feel safe walking to school when at night in that area there [are] shootings?”

Attendees are likely to grapple with tough questions like those at Tuesday’s conference, which goes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Rutgers Paul Robeson Campus Center. You can find details here.