As they sprout across the valley, school gardens are growing more than vegetables and herbs. They’re cultivating a broad new approach to elementary science education — and stronger community roots
On a sunny February afternoon in Crestwood Elementary School’s teaching garden, fourth-grader Carlos blurts out, “Look at the cilantro plant. Each branch has five flowers. Five is a Fibonacci number.”
Special education teacher Juliana Urtubey, who’d asked the students to scour the garden for math problems, stops in her tracks. “Yes …” she says, encouraging him.
He goes on, “Look. If you count the petals, there are eight on each flower. So, we could multiply five times eight to get the number of petals on each branch.”
“Yes, yes we can!” Urtubey says, struggling to contain her joy.A Fibonacci number is an integer in a particular sequence that also appears as patterns in nature, such as tree branches and pinecone scales. It’s surprising enough that a fourth-grader knows what a Fibonacci number is. But it’s especially remarkable for Carlos (not his real name) to get it, as Urtubey explains, standing in the garden a month later: “Multiplying is not his thing. I think we’ve relearned how to multiply all the numbers about 10 times. It just doesn’t stick with him. In this case, I had taught Fibonacci numbers five months earlier, but he remembered it when he looked at the cilantro flowers. It’s a different intelligence that you can pull out of kids out here. They don’t get to shine like that in the classroom.”
Research backs her up. A 2005 study of 647 students in seven Texas elementary schools found that third through fifth grade students who learned science through school garden activities scored significantly higher on a science achievement test than the control group, which studied the subject in a traditional classroom setting.
But knowing such breakthroughs are possible and making them happen are two different things. Urtubey, an enthusiastic school garden proponent, will be the first to tell you that she knew nothing about gardening when she started Crestwood’s program. And her administration requires that time spent in the garden fulfill rigorous instructional mandates. With all the other standards students have to meet, and boxes that teachers have to check, gardening can seem like a burden — or worse, a distraction. On the other hand, if done well, it can feel like it does for Urtubey. “This is the best thing that’s happened to me, in terms of my teaching, since I started this career six years ago,” she says today.
Dozens of gardens are cropping up throughout Clark County School District. Once the funding has been raised and the ribbon-cutting fanfare has passed, how can other schools, like Crestwood, make the most of these newfound resources?
Walter Bracken elementary did school gardens before school gardens were cool, at least in Las Vegas. The so-called STEAM (science, technology engineering, arts and math) Academy’s garden may not be the oldest (Mabel Hoggard Math & Science Magnet Elementary School holds that distinction), but it is remarkable for its pervasiveness both in academics and on school grounds.
“Bracken is amazing,” Urtubey says. “We joke that they’re a garden with a school, instead of a school with a garden.”
Bracken has some 30 raised garden beds and orchards encompassing all manner of fruits, vegetables and herbs. The school also has two tortoise habitats and a “Musical Fairy Garden” with a stage, a percussion wall made from repurposed pots and pans, and hand-crocheted flowers woven through the chain-link fence.
Take a tour with Chris Herbert, coordinator of Bracken’s STEAM magnet program, and you get a feel for what makes her school’s gardens special: the organic (pardon the pun) way they grew. The first garden came about a dozen years ago, Herbert says, when she and some colleagues wondered how to make better use of a dead zone on the west side of campus. A teacher who ran a construction company on the side donated his services, and voila! They transformed a gravel-covered area surrounded by chain-link fence into four raised garden beds painted pink and blue.
“We just added the soil and started it ourselves,” Herbert says. “At the time, our first-grade curriculum included a planting unit, and we thought we’d use it for that.”
Since then, other barren areas and decorative landscaping — nearly every square foot of the unusually large campus that isn’t occupied by buildings, that is — has been converted to garden space. Over the years, teachers asked for their own areas where they could teach lessons tailored to their grades and specialties. The kindergarten area, for instance, had an alphabet garden last fall, with one plant for each letter, A-Z, so kids could use it to learn their ABCs.
“One thing we decided early on was that one person couldn’t be in charge of any part of the program, because then if they leave, it goes away,” Herbert says. “Instead, we decided that all the teachers would be involved in some way. That’s why we have so many gardens: It’s tied to what everyone teaches. We have a whole garden curriculum now.”
To give an idea of how this plays out, on a single day in March, a breezeway outside one classroom wing is stacked with carts and boxes holding cucumber, tomato and cilantro starter plants in red Solo cups. They’re being readied for the school’s annual plant sale, which will also include a farmers market featuring the latest garden harvest (all school events now include a farmers market for clearing out produce and raising money). In the cafeteria, meanwhile, first and second graders are participating in the monthly Junior Chef cooking class, making a radish and cilantro salsa from ingredients they and their fellow students have planted, grown and picked. And in the life sciences lab, second graders are cultivating strawberries in a hydroponics lab custom-built by engineering students at Rancho High School with funding from Leadership Las Vegas. Cowboy Trail Farms owner Marilyn Yamamoto offered her hydroponics expertise to get students going, and their goal is to grow enough fresh produce that it can be added to school cafeteria salads.
Community involvement in the program is apparent at every turn: here, a tortoise habitat that students’ dads built from donated materials; there, Ziploc bags full of kale that’s been washed, packed and labeled with nutrition information by moms volunteering for the farmers market. If there’s a secret to Bracken’s gardening success — and they’ve got the awards to prove they’re successful — this is it: community buy-in.
Getting hands dirty
Research on the academic efficacy of school garden programs suggests that it stems from essential elements in Bracken’s program: a well-integrated curriculum and teacher training. Other players in the district’s school-garden scene understand this and are realizing the concepts in a variety of ways.
Create a Change Now, which has gardens in 11 schools (and 3 more underway), takes a focused after-school approach, says executive director, Melissa Blynn.
“We do garden nutrition and fitness education,” she says, adding that the nonprofit only takes on four or five schools a year, and only Title 1 schools (those with a high percentage of kids receiving free or reduced-price lunches), so that they can be very hands-on in the early stages of development.
Create a Change’s programming, dubbed Healthy School, Healthy Life, revolves around four main activities. The garden club, shepherded by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, meets after school seven times a year to teach kids and parents how to garden both at school and at home. For the Chefs in Schools component of the program, each school is linked to a restaurant that does two cooking demonstrations at the school and holds one fundraiser at the restaurant each year. Let’s Move!, First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative, takes the form of fitness camps put on by nonprofit Desert Rain during Christmas and spring breaks. And, finally, monthly farmers markets provide families with an opportunity to get affordable, fresh food for home.
Another group, Green Our Planet, has focused more broadly on STEM education. Partners Ciara Byrne and Kim MacQuarrie set out to launch an online fundraising platform for eco-conscious nonprofits, but the effort grew into Las Vegas’ most prolific school garden developer, having now jump-started funding for 60 gardens in Southern Nevada. Green Our Planet used a grant it won last year to fund the development of state-approved STEM curricula for kindergarten through fifth graders. Crestwood’s Urtubey helped write the fifth-grade curriculum, and Crestwood teachers participated in the K-5 evaluation process, taking lessons, teaching them to their grade level and giving feedback for fine-tuning. Green Our Planet has also incorporated entrepreneurialism and culinary arts into its programming through farmers markets and chef demonstrations, and has enlisted UNLV to study the impact of gardens on the schools they’re in.
MacQuarrie, Byrne and Blynn all believe such community partnerships are key to their gardens’ longevity. In different ways, both Create a Change and Green Our Planet are fostering volunteer support to help schools keep their gardens going, and both are working on plans for garden-specific professional development for teachers. But most already have day-to-day help in the form of contractor Garden Farms of Nevada.
“Our job is to keep that garden going and flourishing, so that there’s something there for the teachers to teach their curriculum out of,” says company owner Bryan Vellinga. “It’s a unique component among school garden programs. There’s no other school district I know of that has partnered with a gardening company like us.”
A former casino horticulturist and landscaper, Vellinga parlayed his knack for growing food in the desert into a full-time business five years ago. He and his wife (and business partner) Brittany Vellinga approached schools early on, out of a desire to teach kids to grow food. But right away, they saw funding would be an issue; the school district couldn’t afford to build gardens, and Garden Farms wasn’t in the fundraising business. Once nonprofits such as Create a Change and Green Our Planet got involved, Vellinga says, school gardens took off. With Garden Farms’ fees built into their garden budgets, the schools get weekly professional service that includes basic maintenance, as well as teaching both students and staff gardening skills.
“If you tell a teacher, ‘We want you to teach your subject and also grow a garden and make sure it’s thriving,’ they’ll look at you cross-eyed,” Vellinga says. “Sometimes they’re on board, but often, they’re too overwhelmed. Our role is to keep teachers involved. All our farmers are actively involved in the school-garden movement — and it is a growing movement.”
Vellinga says that, unlike most businessmen, his goal is to bring his clients to the point where they don’t need him anymore. He gives the example of Desert Oasis High School, where special ed teacher and garden coordinator Jennifer Davis relied heavily on Garden Farms for her first couple years. Then, she was ready to handle the program on her own.
“That really plays into a garden’s long-term sustainability,” Vellinga says. “The money Jennifer would have been paying us — now, she can keep it for the kids.”