It’s a breezy spring afternoon at Escalante Elementary School, just West of downtown Salt Lake City. And students in Mr. Haglund’s sixth grade class are a little bit dirty. The boys have been digging around in manure and the girls have been pulling out thick weeds from a garden. Some stopped to show off some worms they found. “We have a worm bin that we keep and we feed them and then we use the worm castings to grow plants in our own classroom. And then we come out to plant them out here.”
“We’ve planted beets, tomatoes, carrots, we’ve planted tons of flowers, tulips and pansies.”
Their teacher Roger Haglund says they’re busy and thirsty. “My sixth graders are building a compost bin. One of the sixth grade curriculum requirements is how do things decompose using micro-organisms. So we’re making a composting bin to talk about worms and microbes that help break down waste and turn it back into useful soil or fertilizer.”
Last year the Salt Lake School district, which acquired a combined $300,000 from the home improvement store Lowe’s and a grant from the Daniels Fund based in Denver, had almost a dozen greenhouses installed in this school and several others in the district.
“I mean it was a wonderful gift and they assumed that people would just take it on, but a lot of people just didn’t know what to do,” says Mary Jo Tedesco, a master gardener with Utah State University Extension. She and a couple of other gardening consultants, including the non-profit Wasatch Community Gardens, are now working with the teachers at Escalante Elementary where the district is trying to get a pilot program flourishing. “The reality is that the teachers are very, very busy doing so much of their own curriculum this is sort of added on top of their already huge load. So it’s been a challenge.”
With gardening becoming increasingly popular, education officials in Utah’s urban area school districts are now wanting to give students more hands on life sciences and agriculture lessons than what they might otherwise have in the larger cities.
Yet even as the Salt Lake City School District is investing in this program, many teachers are having to learn how to grow vegetables and other plants for the first time, so that they in turn can teach their own students. Britnie Anderson teaches Fifth Grade, “Without them it would be really difficult. I mean I ran the gardens last year and it was really difficult to get a lot of teachers involved. But when they have someone that’s an expert in the area working directly with them, we’ve had so much more involvement in planting and gardening and it being meaningful. Because I think a lot of teachers start seeds, and then they just send them home because they don’t know what to do with them.”
Since the teachers and the gardeners have started collaborating at Escalante, a diverse school where at least 20 different languages are spoken by students' families, Anderson says some parents even came out to build garden boxes and shelves for the greenhouses and reactions from others have been very supportive. “Because a lot of our parents don’t have the space to be able to do a garden at their house. We have a lot of refugees and a lot immigrants. This isn’t the land they’re used to. The crops we grow here are not the crops they’re used to. So I think it’s really powerful for their kids to learn how they can do that here, and maybe even how they can bring their own seeds here, and we can try doing some of the stuff they’re accustomed to.”
While it provides a cultural bridge for immigrant children trying to find their place in Utah, district officials say they are also concerned with something referred to as STEM - science, technology, engineering and math. Cynthia Talbot Holtz is with the Salt Lake School district, “We’re in a little bit of a crisis in this country with students choosing career pathways in STEM areas. We understand that we have to start with our youngest children, creating that interest and awareness, and not only with our students, but with their parents as well. That the investment they make with their child’s education, especially in the STEM areas, will lead those children to life long lucrative careers.”
Outdoor classroom projects may also help kids concentrate and perform better on tests according to some studies. But what’s more, Tedesco says, these early experiences are profoundly shaping their attitudes towards the environment. “It’s huge, I mean you start them this young and teach them to carefully plant something, to carefully nurture it, to carefully look through the soil, it makes a huge difference in how they see the world.”
Other gardeners, also helping the teachers with outdoor lessons, like Laura Judd with Wasatch community Gardens, says ideally she and others will be working themselves out of the job. “Yes everybody needs a start, not everybody is a gardener. But after working for a year or two hopefully there some ideas in how the system works here. That we teach, they teach, it gets passed onto grade levels once a month. All of these people doing projects in different schools come together teach each other. The lessons get published for other teachers in the school district, it spreads out.”
This story originally aired 4/7/09