Spring is here and Clovis Unified students are hard at work harvesting their seasonal crops.
Small, classroom chairs surround the redwood garden boxes operated by Laurie Hunter’s first grade class at Maple Creek Elementary. Beds sit overflowing with flowers, vegetables and herbs, while students bustle about on a sunny afternoon. Tiny, dirt-dusted fingers begin plucking plants from the earth.
“Miss P, I picked a radish!” exclaimed Max Garcia, as he holds up a quarter-sized Cherry Belle radish. For Maple Creek first-grade teachers this excitement is a daily occurrence.
Sowing seeds for education
Before the push for gardens through initiatives, such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, teachers in Clovis saw the value in school gardens.
“About 12 years ago I started with small, four-by-four garden boxes outside my classroom. I knew it would be a great match for first-grade curriculum on living things,” explained Hunter.
On-campus gardens reside at the following CUSD campuses: Maple Creek, Valley Oak and Nelson elementary schools and Clovis High School.
Growing strong stems
Each garden incorporates curriculum-based learning and aims to promote awareness in environmental studies and nutrition. Teachers, administrators and parent volunteers integrate lesson plans focusing on science, math, nutrition, art and literature.
First graders at Maple Creek cover the growth of plants and how they interact with the environment through science journals. Daily visits to the garden involve recording measurements for math, illustrating sketches for art and collecting observations and data for science.
“My favorite part is the writing. I love science so I like to describe what I see,” Garcia said.
The school-wide garden at Valley Oak houses beds for each grade level. Colorful signs and charts distinguish the theme-based name of each grade’s flourishing box. “California Agriculture” is written above the fourth grade box filled with Nantes carrots, yellow onions, red cabbage and more.
“The garden provides a resource to support observation of life itself as things grow, develop and change,” said Valley Oak teacher Julie McGough.
In their small greenhouse lie trays filled with biodegradable pots made from newspaper. Footprints of kindergarteners remain imprinted in the dirt walkway, with lost petals of edible flowers sprinkled along the path.
Valley Oak vice principal Stacey Firpo created the Garden Gazette, a newsletter for parents, to share garden updates, tips and ideas for families.
“We want the parents of our 575 kiddos to be aware and involved,” Firpo said. “Our outdoor learning center is much more exciting than worksheets and the students love it.”
Project-based learning programs in these outdoor settings provide students with knowledge in how plants germinate, sprout, grow and flower. Beyond instruction they have instilled the values of sustainability and healthy living on and off campus.
Max and his science partner Brooklyn Parker agreed that work in the garden has encouraged them to try all sorts of new foods — like radishes. They take their items home to share, plant and discuss with family.
“They will eat whatever they grow,” said Hunter.
Success of the programs is seen not only in students’ understanding in the classroom but also in their interest in gardening at home and efforts in expanding the programs further.
Under the leadership of Firpo, Valley Oak will add a composting element to their garden this fall. In an effort to reduce the amount of trash produced, students will sort and compost food waste from the cafeteria to be used as nutrient-rich soil on campus. Upcoming improvements were made possible through the 2016 Foundation for Clovis Schools Health and Wellness Grant.
“I think it’s going to be a huge aha! moment for our students to see how much food we waste,” explained Firpo. “This next step adds a more global aspect to our garden, and we hope the community will buy into this initiative.”
Clovis Unified schools have secured funds for gardening through grants and donations. Parents, teachers and local businesses have supported the implementation and management by providing supplies, materials and hours of labor.
Parent volunteer Norell Naoe is a member of the Green Team at Valley Oak, a group of dedicated parents who first planted the garden’s roots and continue to nurture it today.
“Parent involvement has been the primary key to our successful garden program,” she said. “It would not exist at our school without it.”
Naoe is one of many parents concerned by recent budget cuts to programming in the outdoors and the arts.
“Orchard Supply Hardware is now our community partner and that has enabled our team to focus our efforts on improving our program’s curriculum instead of constant fundraising,” Naoe said.
Keep it growing
Teachers use the gardens as a vehicle to marry Common Core standards and interesting, hands-on learning. It takes much more than a green thumb to ensure the district’s vegetable and flower gardens will grow and thrive.
“It would be wonderful if community members wanted to contribute time during harvesting and planting. As a community of learners, we must work together to keep the garden going,” McGough said.
The delight of the day shines brightly off the faces of each child. Spring visits end with a handful of freshly picked flowers and veggies. A guest’s visit ended with the gift of a dainty Marigold, a sign of the bright futures fostered in the garden.