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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.