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With longer days and warmer weather comes another opportunity for District public and public charter school students to get their hands dirty in school gardens across the city.
For more than a decade, they have been able to do so through the School Gardens Program coordinated by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in conjunction with the Department of Parks and Recreation, D.C. Public Schools, Department of General Services, Department of Energy & Environment and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC).
Such collaboration has provided opportunities for young people, like those under urban agriculture teacher Coy McKinney’s tutelage, to connect with the earth, combat climate change and even pursue entrepreneurship through the production of smoothies, along with basil pesto and a special hot sauce made from cayenne peppers they’ve harvested.
Earlier this year, McKinney’s students at Friendship Public Charter School (PCS) – Technology Preparatory High School in Southeast kicked off the planting season by preparing 20 garden beds. Within a matter of months, they will harvest spinach, beets, lettuce, collard greens, basil, bok choy turnips, and raspberry bush among other crops.
The school grounds also has a greenhouse for year-round gardening, along with beehives and a chicken coop, all of which inspire conversation about food deserts and healthy eating. Another element of McKinney’s school gardening program revolves around the several pounds of food waste that he and 40 students have been able to convert into fertilizer.
“Caring for the environment is the baseline for everything,” said McKinney, who has taught urban agriculture at Friendship PCS – Technology Preparatory High School since 2014. “We try to make composting real by showing students that when sending food to a dump, you create methane. Through composting, we create natural fertilizer. Hundreds of pounds of food waste have been turned into worm casting. It’s ongoing. We’ve mostly been using it for our plants.”
It All Started With Legislation
Friendship PCS – Technology Preparatory High School counts among several schools east of the Anacostia River that are affiliated with the School Gardens Program. Others include Garfield Elementary School, Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School and Hendley Elementary School.
In March, students at Anacostia New Tech High School celebrated the development of a new greenhouse, living classroom and hydroponics facilities, the latter of which UDC brought to the school.
In total, 111 public and public charter schools, most of which are elementary level, coordinated on-campus gardening programs last school year, according to figures provided by OSSE. The education agency connects each participating school with various forms of support, including training done in partnership with the U.S. Botanic Garden, Friends of the National Arboretum and local nonprofit City Blossoms, along with numerous other organizations.
Sam Ullery, OSSE’s school gardening specialist, also provides technical assistance and connects schools to resources.
Ullery entered his role in 2011, shortly after the passage of the D.C. Healthy Schools Act. That legislation not only created the School Gardens Program, but set health and nutrition requirements for District schools and agencies, promoted farm-to-school and sustainable agriculture practices, and launched an Environmental Literacy Program.
Reflecting on his experience, Ullery told The Informer that teachers have been able to use gardening to create more multidisciplinary, hands-on instruction of benefit to students. Later this spring, OSSE will coordinate a school garden bicycle tour, in partnership with Slow Food DC, BicycleSPACE and FoodCorps, during which young people can visit school gardens throughout Wards 7 and 8.
Students will also get another opportunity to showcase their horticultural skills when they enter a contest for the best school garden in the city, which Ullery described as a pivotal moment for many of the students who participate in the garden program.
“When students who struggle grasping information presented in the classroom are presented with the same information outside, sometimes they end up being the leaders [in the garden],” Ullery said. “They grasp that information quickly and see themselves as not only someone understanding and getting information, but teaching others that information. There’s a sense of pride in school gardens. It’s something they create and you hear them bragging to their friends about.”
Building Comradery Among Young People
Last weekend, attorneys and staff members from Williams and Connolly LLP in Southwest joined students at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Southeast to prepare flower beds in the front schoolyard. This summer, members of the garden club will visit the Anacostia Watershed Society in Bladensburg, Maryland to explore career options in the field of horticulture.
Christina Schwarz has coordinated these activities, and more, for the garden club at Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS. With the planting season in full swing, she is working with four young people who put in hours of work on a dozen vegetable plant beds. Within a matter of weeks, they expect to start harvesting beans, squash, tomatoes, basil, parsley, green onions and chives.
For four years, Schwarz has volunteered with the garden club, formerly called the green club. In her first year at the helm, she aspires to help students build comradery around gardening and use their craft to help the greater Anacostia community. Schwarz told The Informer that there have been talks about donating harvested crops to Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS’ food pantry.
At a time when faculty members, administrators, and parents alike have grown concerned about students’ socioemotional well-being, Schwarz said that the garden club has been the ideal outlet for young people in search of a viable after-school activity.
“I see them building relationships with each other in the garden, even if they’re not speaking,” said Schwarz, Thurgood Marshall PCS’ program manager. “There are times when time is up and we’re done, but students are telling me that they’re not done. There’s literally always work to be done so if we don’t stop we’d be there forever. It’s actually refreshing to see that they want to stay longer, and love being out here.”