Friday, April 23, 2010

Reading, writing, and 'rugula

It all started with a return phone call this morning from Linda. Not a wedding photographer by trade, though she'd agreed to take pictures for Meghan's wedding last weekend, I learned that the artist generally photographs wildlife and, more recently, organic farms and community gardens all around the Houston area. (What luck!) Linda, unperturbed by the babbling of the bridesmaid with the bike glove tan, shared some of her thoughts on community strengthening through gardening in the region. It was she who directed me to Urban Harvest (a local nonprofit that cultivates farmers' markets and community gardens) and encouraged me to get in touch with the folks involved in developing school gardens in the city. It was almost lunchtime on a Friday, but I started making phone calls....

I spoke first with Susan who filled me in a bit on the history of Urban Harvest and its partnerships with local schools. She talked me through the financing, development, and management of the gardens: it seems the work has grown from the inception of the original 3 gardens years ago and quite a few now have transitioned from after school projects (largely funded by 5-year 21st Century Community Learning Center grants) to programs integrated into the school curriculum, some with their own paid, part-time staff. From local community grants (like those from Home Depot, Shell Oil, and Chase Bank, as well as small businesses) to school budget allotments for garden instructors, funding for these programs continues to shift as the outdoor learning spaces thrive beyond their initial start-up phase. At the conclusion of our conversation, Susan recommended a few interesting school garden models right in my neighborhood. Well, within a 30-minute bike ride, anyway.

[Sidenote on biking in this town: I've learned pretty quickly that Houston is not so biker friendly. Automobiles don't seem to acknowledge the faintly marked bike lanes or the clearly posted "Share the road: bicycles are vehicles, too" signs. Probably hard to see them over the giant truck hoods. And why, in a city so dangerous for cyclists, does nobody wear a helmet?? I've been here over a week and I can count the number of bike helmets I've seen on one hand. End of rant... for now.]

After a quick stop by the post office, Ollie and I arrived at Travis Elementary, supposedly the oldest documented school garden in all of Texas. Principal Walker (not a Texas Ranger) welcomed me to the campus and introduced me to George (parent of two Travis students, professional photographer, long-time Urban Harvest garden volunteer, and part-time staff gardener at the school) who happily showed me around and explained how the gardens had grown over the course of many years. The parents and PTA have been avid supporters, he told me, and with the principal's blessing George exercises quite a bit of creative oversight of the green space between the teacher parking lot and the classrooms. There are dozens of raised garden beds -- considerably more skillfully designed than my first attempt in Meghan's yard (though I am rather proud of it) -- and the beginnings of an orchard. There is a small outdoor amphitheatre. George shared his plans for a fish pond, an interactive environmental data collection center (with a computer, electronic microscope, and camera linked to classrooms and the internet), and a project to develop a series of mini ecosystems to foster a wide variety of wildlife. The sky's the limit, the plans are drawn... now it's just a matter of patience and garnering funds.

As things stand now, each class has a raised bed to cultivate. So does the maintenance and kitchen staff. George is hoping to involve neighbors, inviting them to start small plots and help manage the garden during summer months when school is out. Truly, it is a place of beauty, learning, and community. While we strolled about, a teacher brought her class of fifth graders out for a ladybug hunt: apparently the auditorium was overcrowded with students showing off their "science super hero" costumes and she wanted to give her kids a little peaceful outside time on this beautiful afternoon. See, these are exactly the kinds of impromptu learning experiences that successful school gardens allow. The students excitedly but respectfully inspected each garden plot for the elusive aphid hunters and at least twice a student shyly approached us with a question about a particular plant in the garden. "Is that crazy looking flowering one a broccoli or a brussels sprout plant?" one girl ventured. It was the latter, though they're closely related. (Seriously? I'd never even seen brussels sprouts growing on the plant until about two years ago. This kid was at least 20 years ahead of my own learning curve. I am humbled, yet again, by a ten-year-old.) A bit later, George showed me one of the butterfly gardens, including a simple wooden trellis he'd constructed after noticing monarchs building their chrysalises on similar beams near the garden shed. The hope is that the butterflies will populate the beams outside the classroom window, where students are learning about monarch butterflies in science. I departed with butterflies (of the excitement variety) in my stomach.

With less than an hour left in the school day, Ollie and I hit the road again, this time for Helms Elementary, where a veteran science teacher had found herself talked into spearheading a school garden and wildlife preserve more than a decade ago. Welcoming me with a big hug -- I love huggers! -- Lindy asked her colleague, Mary (a longtime community volunteer at the school and active member of the gardening team), to show me around while she got the students set up for a review session in the computer lab. (Next week is the big statewide science exam for fifth graders. Let the record show that I am refraining from ranting about the ludicrous nature of high-stakes standardized tests... for now.) Mary showed me around the vegetable garden and guided me around the wetland preserve. An engineer had seen the pond's small wooden bridge a few years back, I learned, and insisted that he design another one that allowed students to see the water and turtles underneath... a sturdy metal walkway now stretches over the waterway. Mary then introduced me to the turtles and explained recent trouble with the overworked water pump... a plumber friend had volunteered to help fix things, but it was going to be a few weeks, she confided. While there have been a series of small grants along the way, it turns out that most of the supplies and expertise have come from friends, neighbors, and local businesses. Now, isn't that how it should be? (Kind of reminds me of the Noyo Food Forest's successful community partnerships.) Much of the garden building had been done by students and volunteers, I later learned from the science teacher, with most of the heavy lifting courtesy of juvenile offenders doing community service hours. Rather than being phased by their prominent tattoos, Lindy was overjoyed by the strength of the young men. (It's all a matter of perspective, she laughed.) There are plans here, too, for expanding the gardens little by little, funding and leadership permitting.

Lindy, Mary, and I chatted for another hour or so as students tutored each other in the humming computer lab. By five o'clock it was time for Ollie and I to head out. I was hungry and also excited to capture some of what I'd learned today in writing. Food education is slowly taking root in Texas, and the kids are clearly thriving on reading, writing, and a little romaine. (Which is good, because history education is taking a nose dive: the board of education just cut Thomas Jefferson out of the textbooks last month. Ah, Texas....)

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