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A First for School Gardens in the Nations’ Capital

Last week there was cause for celebration in Washington, D.C.  Not only was it the first week of school, it was also the first week for D.C.’s very first full-time school garden coordinator. Salaried. With benefits. Hired by the DC Public School System.  

It has been three years since I wrote about the need for school gardens to be fully staffed here on Civil Eats. I have been working towards it ever since. At that time, there were fewer than 50 school gardens in our city, and fewer than five of them were staffed. Today, there are 92 school gardens and over 30 of them are staffed with part-time school garden coordinators. This alone should be cause for celebration. But we strive for perfection here in Washington, and we want all schools to have gardens and all schools to have full-time school garden coordinators. Like the position we celebrated last week at Stoddert Elementary.

After my wonderful and eye-opening experience in the garden at Bancroft Elementary, I left my teaching position to pursue this goal full-time at DC Greens.

As Washingtonians, we are born with the understanding that real, system-wide change requires the marriage of top-down legislation and grassroots efforts on the community level.  Three years ago Mrs. Obama planted the seed for change by bringing attention to school gardens.  Since then, we have seen huge growth in the school garden movement. So what happened?

To begin, the “pending” Healthy Schools Act (HSA) I mentioned three years ago passed, establishing a full-time School Garden Specialist at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). This landmark legislation is currently in its third year, and provides critical support to school gardens through grants that specifically require a dedicated school garden coordinator.

The HSA was a collaborative effort, designed through working groups convened by D.C. City Councilmember Mary Cheh and attended by every non-profit and governmental agency that cared about the healthy growth of our city’s kids.  We worked hard to make sure the Act included what we saw as necessary aid for school garden programs.

At DC Greens, we developed the Growing Garden Teachers training series, which supports and nurtures this emerging position of school garden coordinator, made possible by the funding from the Healthy Schools Act. This program has helped to legitimize this position, and has created a professional network of over 50 school garden coordinators, ranging in hours worked from three a week to 40 a week split amongst multiple schools. We train these educators on all aspects of their position as school garden coordinators, offering technical assistance, materials and curriculum support and bringing in both local and national experts to model best practices.

But how did Stoddert Elementary manage to create a fully staffed model school garden program in three years?

It started with a garden: A beautiful, welcoming, exploratory outdoor classroom designed with teacher and student input within a framework of local and national best practices, culminating in a build day that engaged the entire school community. In 2010, the school began a modernization and expansion project, and a group of parents approached DC Greens with the idea of a garden classroom.

Together with the school modernization team, we carved out and reserved a space for the garden while we worked to raise money to pay for the build. We used our first season’s profits from the farmers’ market we run, Whole Foods pitched in with a 5 percent day, and we wrote a couple of small grants for a shed and other supplies. In March of 2010 the garden was built with over 70 teachers, parents, kids, and neighbors from the school community.

Then the garden needed to be staffed. With grant money from OSSE, we hired a coordinator, Kealy Rudersdorf one day a week. Many of the classroom teachers were enthusiastic about teaching in the garden. Others were hesitant. As I said in my post three years ago, “(Teachers) saw gardening as an extra-curricular activity. Disrupting the daily schedule was not an option.” The hardworking staff at Stoddert was no exception to this mindset.

Recognizing the realities of teaching within a public school, Kealy worked hard inside the school community for that first season, meeting with teachers, listening to their needs, and looking at the school’s science standards. Because the District focus on reading and math test scores, science often gets put on the back burner in the elementary classroom. In addition, lots of teachers do not have a background in science, and therefore don’t feel comfortable even teaching it in their classrooms, much less outside. Often this is the content that gets left out of the curriculum.

Kealy’s next step was to figure out how to teach some of these standards in the garden, thereby relieving some of the burden from the classroom teachers. She was smart – she set up her garden lessons so that the classroom teachers were able to accompany their classes outside. This allowed them to be active participants in their students’ learning and connect it to their classroom curriculum. She worked extensively with the enthusiastic teachers to model the benefits for those who were more wary at the outset. She also spent time in the classrooms learning from the teachers and together she and the staff worked collaboratively to craft a relevant, engaging science curriculum that was taught both in and outside the classroom.

After a year, the staff was convinced. The PTA found money to match the OSSE grant and increase her hours from one to two days per week. The following year, she was hired three days per week. A year later, the principal saw the impact of the garden on the school community: parents had organized to petition for extended days, and the teachers (and students!) were requesting more time with Ms. Kealy. In response to the demand, the principal assigned one of the full-time teaching positions to Kealy.  The job started last week.

Is this a model that can easily be replicated by every school in the city? Perhaps not. So what is the model that every school can replicate to staff their garden program? This is the discussion that we’ve been having across the country. We know the common denominators in success stories are: Support from the state level; non-profit partnerships; funding; dedicated teachers and administrators; a rigorous professional training program; and creative gardens built by the school community. There are many models in many school districts across the country. Each is based on a unique combination of resources in that District.

The success we celebrated last week is the school system valuing gardens. They are finally being seen as key parts of a rigorous school curriculum – places that have the potential to teach a wide range of skills, standards and lessons and engage students of all learning styles and ability levels. A seed has been planted here in Washington, and we have a huge range of institutional players working to nurture it.  And if we work just as hard over the next three years we will have more fully staffed gardens and more to celebrate.

Until then, our hats go off to all the school garden coordinators and classroom teachers across the city and country, who, last week, readied their gardens and outdoor classrooms for a whole new year of learning.

3 thoughts on “A First for School Gardens in the Nations’ Capital

  1. For the record, there are a few forward thinking Public Charter Schools in Washington that are ahead of the curve and have full time dedicated school garden coordinators, namely Mundo Verde Public Charter School and St. Coletta of Greater Washington. We are so glad that the DC Public School system is following their lead! May there be many more full time SGC’s (in both DCPS and Public Charter Schools) in year’s to come!

  2. Hi Sarah!

    Congrats!! This is such great news.

    We have also been working on this very issue here in San Francisco. For the past three years we’ve built the Corps for Education Outside and now have 22 full-time outdoor educators working San Francisco Unified School District!

    We’re on our way together!
    Rachel

  3. This is so inspiring to read. We have been running a nonprofit (GrowSomeGood.org) that provides these services to 5 public and charter schools in Maui, Hawaii. With over 90% of our food being imported, high rates of obesity, retiring local farmers and multiple educational challenges, the services are highly valued by teachers, parents and other community members. Over the past 6 years, students have become avid gardeners, inspired home gardeners, purveyors of a donation-based farmers market, advocates for healthier nutrition choices for the entire family, engaged, enthusiastic students … even performing better on tests etc.

    I am currently a full time coordinator funded almost entirely by private donations. Our hope at Grow Some Good is that our efforts to prove effectiveness of these resources will influence principals, county officials and state education administrators to consider funding these positions in the near future.

    Thank you for sharing your awesome news and keep up the great work!