Garden Helps to Engage Students, Get Involved in Community
Tilling soil, shoveling ten tons of gravel, laying paving stones and growing crops aren’t normal job duties for an educator. But for staff at McGary Middle School in Evansville, Indiana, that’s exactly what they are doing this summer as they kick off a community garden project.
The idea for a community garden sprouted as students at McGary explored community issues throughout the year. They identified hunger and the lack of healthy food choices as a major concern, especially for low-income families. As a result, the courtyard at McGary will be transformed into an outdoor learning space, complete with a greenhouse that will house fresh fruits and vegetables and an outdoor instructional area for reading, math and science lessons.
“We’re very excited to give students the opportunity to learn how some of these life processes work in the real world rather than just out of the textbook,” said Joseph Lannan, a math/science/technology instructor at McGary and co-leader of the project. “This outdoor classroom space is going to allow us to do that.”
NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign leveraged a partnership with NEA’s Green Across America initiative to donate $3,500 to help fund the community garden. Tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, peppers, strawberries, grapes and more will be grown in the garden and sold below market rate to community residents and donated to area food banks that serve low-income families.
NEA’s Student Program also got involved with the project by donating volunteers to help with the physical labor of laying the foundation for the greenhouse. On a rainy day in June, NEA Student Program Chair Tommie Leaders and student members from several universities in Indiana worked with staff and students at McGary, digging up dirt and laying gravel for the paving stones. “Community service is a huge thing for the student members,” said Leaders. “The reason a lot of student members are going to school to be teachers is to make a difference in their community and this is just a great way to show their dedication to the profession.”
“Working to create great public schools for every student sometimes means we must go beyond the classroom and school to find meaningful partnerships,” said Evansville Teachers Association President Keith Gambill. “This project is a great way to make school subjects come alive for students and it’s a great way for our educators to teach nearly every subject covered in the classroom.”
Equity School Achievement
The community garden project at McGary is a collaborative effort, a concept that staff and students at McGary are used to. In addition to being a priority school, McGary is also one of three Equity Schools in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation (EVSC).
“The Equity Schools project is a joint endeavor between the school district and the Evansville Teachers Association,” explained Gambill. The project aims to transform schools through professional development for teachers and extended learning time for students.
As an Equity School, educators at McGary are given professional development time each day to coordinate their lesson plans. In those meetings, staff discovered that the students really cared about hunger and food, and how to help their community get access to healthy food.
“As the teachers were developing thematic based instruction around science and math, the garden became a byproduct of that,” said McGary Principal Mary Schweizer. “The students realized that we need to do more than just plant, germinate, dissect seeds and watch them grow. We need take it from seed to finished product and then give back to the community.” Now science, math and reading classes can be organized around an issue of interest to the students.
“The students are taking ownership of something,” said 6th grade science teacher Annie Willis, the other co-leader of the project. “They saw these plants come from a little packet in their life science unit and they have been responsible for nourishing them. They are going from start to finish through the harvest to the selling of our produce. The ownership gives them great pride.”
The professional development time, coordinated lesson plans and student ownership have paid off at McGary. Results of Indiana’s statewide testing program, ISTEP, show that while scores increased across the board in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Cooperation in 2011 compared to 2010, the increases were greater at the three Equity Schools.
Eighth-graders at McGary increased their math and English/Language Arts scores by 7 percent in each subject. Eighth-graders at other schools in the district increased their English/Language Arts scores by 1 percent and Math scores by 2 percent.
“Relative to the Equity Schools, the improvement in ISTEP scores is a testament to the collaborative efforts between the Evansville Teachers Association and the EVSC, and the work that has taken place this school year in these new school schedules and learning opportunities designed by our own teachers in these buildings,” said Dan Ulrich, chief academic officer for EVSC, in a press release.
Collaboration is Key
Once it was agreed the school would build a community garden and outdoor learning space, it became clear they needed some help to get the project going. “We are a full service community school so we understand as a staff that we cannot do the work alone, we need our community partners,” said Schweizer.
McGary has an active Site Council that builds and maintains relationships between the school, families and the community. The Site Council consists of students, staff, parents, community groups and local businesses. They meet once a month to talk about the challenges McGary faces, what the community partners can do to help and what the school can do to help the community partners. Julie Mullen is the Family and Community Outreach Coordinator at McGary, and chairs the Site Council along with Principal Schweizer.
“I think it’s wonderful because you get to know community around your school and you’re able to work with your community,” said Mullen.
Principal Schweizer and Mullen built relationships with the community through face-to-face interactions. Together they did neighborhood walks, visited apartment complexes and introduced themselves directly to local business owners. Mullen then utilized the new partnerships to get donated materials and equipment, such as shovels, wheelbarrows and concrete, for the garden project.
One of those partners is Empire Contractors, a commercial and industrial construction company in Evansville. “We do a lot of work with the Evansville schools,” said Matt Bishop, an employee of Empire. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
“Everyone’s commitment to our schools in Evansville is strong,” said Gambill. “As the ISTEP scores and excitement about the community garden show, the help from community partners and parents, dedicated educators and administrators, along with a collaborative relationship between ETA and our superintendent is really making a difference for our students.”
See photos from the courtyard project kickoff on NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign Flickr page.