Teacher and garden advocate Casey Brennan is asking school district to support project financially

COURTESY OF CASEY BRENNAN - The garden at the rear of Hopkins Elementary has become a sanctuary, an outdoor classroom and a community resource as well as a landmark in the city thanks to hundreds of volunteer hours spent working on it each year.In June 2014, Hopkins Elementary dedicated a garden of 10 raised beds, each with its own distinct theme.

Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes chose a theme for each of their gardens that included the following: Purple Surprises, where everything was purple, such as potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, tomatillos with some of the plants forming a question mark; and Square Foot Garden, with many sensory plants such as three kinds of mints, a "tea party" and kitchen herbs.

Plants for Pollinators included a quartet of lemon plants plus a rectangle of alyssum; the Salsa Garden had some Romanesco plants at the head; a Secret Garden included a music stand, a "magical" box of vials and special odoriferous plants in white tubs; and the Hopkins Garden featured a giant letter "H" of red lettuce, a tiled hawk and plants with the school colors of red white and black.

Teacher Sheila Knapp's class chose to create a Napping Garden with a headboard that it called "Let's Take a (K) NAP (P); all the plants included "k" sounds like cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and coleus.

Teacher Casey Brennan was instrumental in the formation of the gardens along with several other teachers and volunteers, and people could contact her over the summers if they wanted to water or tend the garden.

Since then, a shed has been added for storage, and a drip system was installed to make maintaining and watering the gardens easier.

"I have been spearheading the garden for the past four years voluntarily," Brennan said. "I spend more than 200 hours every school year and during the summer on the garden, and it has gotten to be such a big project. The garden has become an outdoor classroom, the community uses the garden, and the SHARE Center uses the garden to teach free gardening and cooking classes.

"Teachers use it for emotionally disturbed students who can go out to the garden for a break, and it provides positive reinforcement for students with behavior struggles. I asked the school district for a stipend for next year, which has been denied. I don't understand the unwillingness of the district to support a program focused on sustainability, local agriculture, gardening, composting, community building and Earth science."

According to Brennan, who also is involved with the Farm to Table program with Our Table Farm, other school districts support community gardens, and she added that she has started grant writing to try to find a way to support the garden financially.

In addition Brennan researched and compiled a pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade curriculum for teachers at each grade level to use that follows the Next Generation Science Standards. "This is a resource teachers will always have, and all the lessons are very easy to implement," she said.

"This school garden program is so important to so many people. But I can't keep doing it without compensation. It's devastating to think of it coming to an end. (Hopkins Principal) Penny Salm has gone to bat for me at the district level. (District officials) said they would revisit my request for the following year. And I do still have high hopes the community might find an interest in investing in the garden though!"

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