First Person

Growing a School Garden: Part One

Planting a garden at your school can be as simple or elaborate as your ambitions, financial resources, stamina, and the support of your principal, custodial engineer, and science teacher.

The garden at PS 107
The garden at PS 107

Recently we spoke with Michele Israel, a parent at PS 107 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to find out how she started a garden at her school. We won’t lie to you: The process takes planning, diplomatic skills, research, creativity, resourcefulness and — did we mention this already? — stamina. But if you’re willing to dive in and spearhead a garden at your school, you could be rewarded with the sight of your child joyfully eating the lettuce, peas, and purple basil she herself planted in the school’s courtyard while learning firsthand about growing fresh food and healthy eating.

Because there are so many facets to getting a school garden started, we’ve decided to break down the process into three phases: development/planning, materials/financing, and planting/harvesting. Today we’ll look at the development/planning stage.  Over the next two weeks we’ll cover the other phases.

There can be no garden at your school unless you win people’s support, particularly that of your principal, custodial engineer, PTA board, and teachers. So, before wasting any time researching and planning for a garden, go to your principal and see if she’s receptive to the idea. At PS 107, the principal was on board, but she decided that the garden would go in the school’s courtyard, which did not get optimal sunlight. “Since the principal supported the garden, we figured out how to work with the space,” Michelle said.  In fact, Michele has identified being “a problem solver” as a key characteristic of being a school gardener, since you will run into many unanticipated obstacles, such as getting a space with little to no sunlight.

Once a space had been designated, a small planning team was formed that consisted of three parents and garden designer Bryan Quinn of One Nature Design. Members of the planning team visited a few gardens at other schools to get ideas and then had experienced people take a look at PS 107’s space to let them know what was possible. These people included the then-manager of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s GreenBridge and the executive director of GrowNYC, who happened to be a PS 107 parent at the time. Another person you might want to consider getting feedback from is an experienced gardener from a local community garden.

Another view of the garden at PS 107
Another view of the garden at PS 107

Working for the school on a pro-bono basis, Quinn then created several designs of what the garden might look like. (His work also included a shade study and recommendations for plants.) Before presenting the agreed-upon design to her principal, Michele first showed it to the school’s custodial engineer to find out whether the proposed design interfered with any fire exits or construction mandates. Input from your custodial engineer is critical, since they will know about building regulations, possible sources of water, where to store tools, etc. Once the design received their custodial engineer’s approval, members of the planning committee then presented the design, along with their PTA president, to PS 107’s principal and assistant principal. “The design really helped propel the project,” Michelle said, because helping the principal and assistant principal visualize the garden got them excited about it and convinced them to move ahead.

Accommodating your school administration’s needs and desires will be critical to your garden’s success, as will be your ability to assure them that the garden will not result in any extra work for them. You need to make it clear that you, the parents, will be doing all the dirty work (although in the case of PS 107, the science teacher got involved as well as the children) and that you will be consulting with your principal and custodian regarding each step of the plan. As Michele said, “The garden is not for the parents. It’s for the entire school and the school administrators have the final say … For example, to get access to the school on the weekend, when we did the construction, we needed a permit.” And the only way Michele could get that, as well a key to the courtyard, was through PS 107’s custodial engineer. 

With time, as it became clear that the parents at PS 107 would be taking care of the school garden themselves, everyone became more amenable. The custodial engineer even took a trip to Home Depot to buy a hose with a gift card that the garden committee had won as part of a grant. As Michele says, “A school garden is about developing relationships. … I believe in working as a team and working within the parameters that we have.” In fact, the school administrators are now among the garden’s biggest fans, enthusiastic about ways the garden can grow and be incorporated into the curriculum.

Once you have a plan and the support of your principal, PTA board and custodial engineer, it’s time to form a volunteer gardening committee. In the case of PS 107, they were able to assemble 20 active and committed members including Bryan Quinn of One Nature Design, their science teacher, a local carpenter (a must for the construction of the all-important planters), and parents. The first task of the committee was devising a budget for the garden and securing funds. Next week we will have information about gardening grants, how to secure free tools and seeds, and what materials to consider for your garden.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention. 

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.