First Person

Growing A School Garden, Part Three: Reaping and Eating

In the last couple of weeks, we have been reporting about our conversation with Michele Israel, a parent at PS 107 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, about how to grow an edible school garden. Michele has guided us through the planning stage and has generously shared with us possible sources of funding. The next step, finally, is to plant and reap the benefits of all your hard work.

lettuceThe inspiration to grow an edible school garden originates with the children, of course, and the desire to see them learn firsthand about where food comes from and to literally enjoy the fruits — and veggies — of their labor. As soon as you have funding and your garden is a go, you will want to find ways to bring the children and teachers of your school into the process. What the garden committee at PS 107 did first to capture the children’s imagination was hold a garden-naming contest. Out of 140 entries the name “The Sunshine Garden”, submitted by a first grader, was selected. Having a naming contest gave the students a sense of ownership; it signaled to them that the garden was theirs to learn from and enjoy.

PS 107’s science teacher was instrumental in ensuring that the children were involved in the planting of the garden and that the garden became integrated into the curriculum. “We believe that the parents should provide foundational support and continued resources,” Michelle says. “But to really make the garden part of the school, it should be in the teachers’ hands.” This past year Michele decided to approach other teachers at her school about gardening and was able to recruit 12 more in different capacities. As Michele explains, “When I say different capacities, I mean that some just did hydroponic gardening in the classroom using AeroGrow Gardens, others started seeds in the classroom using grow lights. …  And several used the garden to address a mandated inquiry project they had to do.” The point is gardening doesn’t just have to take place outside, it can happen in the classroom as well.

Be prepared that with students planting, the garden is probably going to have a haphazard quality. “Let the garden be messy,” Michelle advises. “With students, especially young ones, things might get a bit disorganized — too many seeds in one place, things kind of strewn here and there. … For me, that’s OK. … Things can be thinned, replanted, replaced. … Nature truly does take its course.”

As students get their hands dirty in the garden, they learn about plants, the natural environment (from weather to water to soil), and healthy eating. This year students at PS 107 will use their garden to examine environmental conditions that have an impact on gardening. Steve Tomsik, PS 107’s science teacher, explains, “I see the garden not only as an extension of my classroom, where lab work and scientific inquiry can take place, but also as a novel and engaging place where students can explore.” Here’s a sampling of some of the fruits and vegetables PS 107 grew in 2009: peas, spinach, corn, raspberries, gooseberries, lettuce, kale, leeks, arugula, beans, sweet peppers, eggplant, sunflowers, chives, three types of basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and heirloom potatoes. And remember theirs is a shady garden!

cookingYou may be wondering what to do with all this fresh, healthy food once you’ve grown it. Many NYC schools with edible gardens participate in the Garden to School Café pilot program of the city Department of Education’s SchoolFood and the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets. Participating schools have a “Harvest Day,” when the fresh food grown in their gardens is used to prepare dishes that the students can sample. The Earth School in the East Village recently had their Harvest Day. Their menu included roasted potatoes with rosemary, sautéed spinach with garlic, and pasta with fresh basil pesto. These dishes were served that day as part of the school lunch in the cafeteria as well. PS 107’s Harvest Day included roasted basil chicken, herbed rice, and kale slaw, all prepared with the fresh vegetables grown in their garden.

The Garden to School Café program shows students, parents and teachers that meals prepared with fresh ingredients are possible for school lunch. At The Earth School in the East Village, students loved the food that was prepared. “The potatoes are amazing!” “The spinach is so good!” At PS 107, students were heard saying at their Harvest Day, “This is the best food I ever ate!”  “Do you know why the pesto was so good? Because we grew it!” According to parents, kids whose favorite vegetable was french fries are now requesting kale and pesto for dinner.

As we said at the beginning of this series, starting an edible garden at your school is going to take planning, diplomatic skills, research, creativity, resourcefulness, and stamina. As you consider whether to grow an edible garden at your school, we’d like to leave you with these words from Cynthia Holton, PS 107’s principal:

I view the garden as an important part of the school’s progressive curriculum, in which experiential and collaborative learning are key components. What better way to immerse students in science, as well as in environmental and nutrition education? Our fruit and vegetable garden serves as an outdoor learning lab where students delve into the life and physical sciences and agricultural literacy. They work together to plant and make gardening decisions. They become environmental stewards who grow their appreciation of the natural world. All of this makes for an excellent education.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.