Local nonprofit brings gardens to every FGSD school
Andrew wants to plant a banana tree in the Harvey Clarke Elementary School courtyard so he can climb up the trunk, sit in the branches and pick bunches of his favorite yellow fruit.
Lucian wants to grow oranges, lemons and "exotic squash."
Kelsey loves mangoes and apples and — like the majority of her peers — would like to grow strawberries.
And like something out of a science fiction-inspired dream, one youngster would even like to "grow turkey" in the green space outside his first-grade classroom.
Some selections are more likely to be successful in Oregon's far-from-tropical climate than others, but if there's one universal goal of the future garden, it's engaging students in hands-on learning. So, leaders of Dairy Creek Community Food Web — a Forest Grove nonprofit designed to promote a local food community — are working to put a garden at every school in the Forest Grove School District.
A $7,200 grant from the Trail Blazers Foundation awarded last fall will help them do it, along with grants from the city of Forest Grove.
Using the grant money, DCCFW members hired Colleen Walker as a school garden coordinator for the district at the start of the 2017-18 academic year. Walker works with students and teachers to design a curriculum that lines up with state STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) standards.
"I believe that when a young person can see the impact a healthy landscape has on their community, they will make more educated and conscious decisions that will benefit both their future and the future of our community," Walker said. "And, of course, outdoor-based education is just a lot of fun and gets kids excited about learning."
Currently, there are school gardens at Neil Armstrong Middle School, Tom McCall Upper Elementary School, Forest Grove Community School, Forest Grove High School, Oak Grove Academy and Echo Shaw, Dilley and Joseph Gale elementary schools.
Harvey Clarke Principal Pete Moshinsky and staff are collaborating with Pacific University permaculture design students in hopes they'll have a garden up by the end of the school year.
Students of Pacific professor Terry O'Day's Design for Sustainability class presented several design concepts to Harvey Clarke staff before winter break.
An art professor, O'Day also plays a major role at Forest Grove's hands-on learning mecca, B Street Farm, which local students visit during field trips and summer camps to learn about gardening, animals, composting and more.
Design students' comprehensive plans for the free courtyard space between Harvey Clarke classrooms included everything from worm compost bins and rain barrels to squash trellises and wood-round stepping stones to gazebos and outdoor shelters.
Pacific students will implement the chosen design next spring.
Large classes a challenge
Local teachers are hoping support from DCCFW will help them hop over some barriers they've faced on the way to creating successful gardening programs.
In addition to relying on unstable grant funding and donations for initial startup costs, there are also ongoing ones like seed and supply purchases.
While those issues can be solved with fundraisers and donations, the challenge of large class sizes is tougher to solve.
"With 30-plus kids in a class, it's very difficult to facilitate a learning experience outdoors without extra help," Walker said.
Amy Johnson, a sixth-grade teacher at Tom McCall, started a school garden about nine years ago, hoping it would become an engaging resource for learning and science. The school has nine raised beds, a ground-level garden area and two apple trees.
"In a perfect world, it would be a wonderful thing to go along with our science lessons," said Johnson, who teaches a unit on photosynthesis, for example.
But a class of 34 is unmanageable with the excitement of being outside. And parent volunteer enthusiasm generally decreases by the time fifth- and sixth-graders come around, she said.
In addition, two active after-school garden clubs had been using the space. But those have been cut as a grant funding after-school programs is starting to run out.
Still, Moshinsky envisions each classroom teacher bringing a STEM unit to life with the new space and help from DCCFW.
Machelle Childers, a first-grade teacher at Harvey Clarke, already uses a couple small garden beds outside her classroom to plant a few spring edibles students can harvest before summer break. She plans to incorporate the first-grade lessons about life cycles into the new garden, which will allow her whole class to be active in planting, weeding and harvesting at once.
Mindy Perkins, who currently teaches Harvey Clarke fourth-graders about habitats, could use a larger, more active school garden to cultivate a pollinator garden or maintain a worm compost bin with her students.
Rogelio Vivanco, a fifth-grade teacher at Echo Shaw, used the garden classroom he created last year to explore soil health, habitats, erosion and how humans impact the planet.
"The kids want to work in the garden all the time," said Vivanco, who tries to bring his students out to the garden once a week. "I don't want them to be afraid to get their hands dirty or pick up a worm."
He added, "They really take ownership over what they grow." He hears students say things like "this is my lettuce" when they see their produce show up in the school salad bar.
Vivanco recruits a few families to help maintain the garden over the summer. In exchange for their toil, they keep the produce. Students continue harvesting late-season crops, such as tomatoes and tomatillos, when they return in the fall.
Some crops are more popular than others. While nearly all his students tried the radishes, most didn't care for the spicy bulb.
'Pick food and smell it'
Childers' students are also more willing to try vegetables when they've grown them. Every one of her students tried kale last year.
"Yeah, I want a garden because I like eating stuff from my garden," said August, a Harvey Clarke first-grader.
His peers seemed to feel the same way.
"I like to garden because you just get to go outside and pick food and smell it, and it's delicious," said Megan.
"It makes it easier to have a snack," Addison said. "You just go outside and get some."
Not all students start out so connected to the concept of a garden, though.
A young girl told Childers she didn't realize lettuce leaves came from a plant until she saw a head of the vegetable growing at Harvey Clarke.
Vivanco has heard similar musings from youngsters.
"I want them to know that milk doesn't come from Safeway and apples don't come from WinCo," said Vivanco.
Moshinsky hopes a lively outdoor gardening space will teach children to protect the environment and "to share the Earth with everybody," he said.
"Even if it's just this little space, if we respect the Earth, it will provide if we treat it well," said Moshinsky.
While not every student will relate to the gardening experience, Moshinsky said, "What if, out of 500 kids, you could get 15 or 20 to become environmental engineers?"
On a more basic level, Moshinsky hopes the garden will keep students engaged in school.
"If kids struggle academically, they often excel in this type of environment," he said.
Walker has seen the excitement gardening brings to students of all ages.
She said, "Having a garden classroom at every school is the first step to bringing kids into a tactile and immersive learning space."
By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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