There’s now a blooming garden at every school site in the Lawrence school district.
One school garden, cared for by the Billy Mills Middle School Garden Club, grows tomatoes, purple peppers, radishes, garlic and an abundance of other vegetables. Club members plant flowers and tend to natural species of plants while engaging with the insects fluttering, crawling or wriggling within the ecosystem.
Billy Mills sixth grader Delyla Kring-Hickman said she feels fully connected to nature when gardening, especially since club members don’t spray herbicides or pesticides on the garden. And they get to enjoy the food they grow.
“I just love to get out there and explore and smell the flowers, look at the bugs, pick the ripe fruits and vegetables,” Delyla said. “You actually get to feel how it feels to plant your own food and eat it, because normally fresh grown vegetables or fruits itself, they taste much better because they’re naturally grown.”
This past year, every school site in the district had its own garden or greenhouse for the first time in the district’s history. Denise Johnson, USD 497’s assistant director of health and wellness, championed initial efforts in 2013 to build gardens at the schools. Jennifer Bessolo, former director of curriculum and virtual education for the district, started the Billy Mills (formerly South Middle School) garden in 2015.
Students now participate at each elementary, middle and high school. Kennedy Early Childhood Center, Community Transition (C-Tran), the Lawrence College and Career Center and Douglas County Juvenile Detention programs have gardens, too.
Lawrence High School freshman Bella Gragg said being involved in the Billy Mills Garden Club for three years as a student there gave her a sense of pride.
She and her best friend, Maycie Sleeper, met when they joined the Garden Club, where Bella served as president and Maycie as vice president. Now they return to their middle school alma mater to help mentor the current members.
“You can make a lot of friends in the garden,” Maycie said. “We met in sixth grade, and now we’re inseparable.”
A team effort
Pantaleon Florez III wants to teach Lawrence students about the power of food — not only from the perspective of consuming, but also from creating.
Florez, the experiential learning specialist for the Lawrence school district, is a farmer himself. Founder and operator of Maseualkualli Farms in Lawrence, Florez wholeheartedly believes in a farm-to-table model.
As coordinator of the district’s Farm 2 School (F2S) program, he’s working with the same idea. The program helps students gain knowledge about growing food and creating healthy meals, and allows them to experience learning outdoors. Florez said that’s a fresh approach to traditional indoor classroom learning. It also challenges food insecurity.
“So many of us are so far removed from our food system,” Florez said. “Creating systems for students to engage with the earth is a really powerful one that will affect them in so many ways in their lives. We have to have enough food to be educated; we have to have enough food to have healthy bodies; we have to have the right foods that are appropriate and culturally relevant for us to have healthy minds. And also just getting kids outside.”
Over the past few school years, F2S has helped provide more than 50 tons of local produce to the school cafeterias, supported 18 school gardens and led more than 5,000 students in learning experiences, according to the district’s website. Southwest and West middle schools’ garden programs partner with local organizations and businesses, such as the Farmers Market at Clinton Parkway Nursery, to employ some students.
Running the districtwide school gardens is a team effort. Each garden has a dedicated coordinator. The Billy Mills Garden Club, led by adviser Chloe Mason, meets after school every Tuesday and Thursday.
Billy Mills seventh grader Max Molla, Garden Club member, said the tomatoes the group grew last year were delicious. They harvested two giant buckets of them a day, she said, and they planted more this semester.
“You should learn how to grow your own food because not only is it a good life skill, it’s also just really fun to do,” Max said.
A group of parents, school teachers and staff and community and neighborhood members also volunteer their time to help the young gardeners out. Members of the Master Gardeners of Douglas County, a community of gardening experts, spend several hours per week working with students, and the group also coordinates the Junior Master Gardener Program and children’s garden programs at the Lawrence Public Library.
Florez assists school gardens by finding resources, putting in work orders, writing grants for projects and advising school coordinators on garden layouts. The district has a mobile shed that’s sent from school to school to transfer gardeners the tools, seeds and other materials they need. During gardening season, Florez can be found getting his hands dirty.
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Gardening as part of course curriculum
This semester, Florez is working with the district to integrate gardening into elementary school curriculum. He said his goal is to provide “outdoor, dirt-based learning” for students across all levels, eventually.
“We want to increase teacher involvement in getting students outside into the gardens, because currently there’s not a whole lot written in the actual curriculum teachers have to do to get them out there,” he said.
Florez is analyzing the district’s current curriculum to find ways educators can transition their teaching to the outdoors without adding more to their workloads. Mystery Science, an elementary science curriculum, includes units that focus on growing radishes. Classes in different grades could collaborate on projects, which would use fewer resources and promote teamwork.
As an example of what’s possible using Mystery Science, Florez said, kindergarteners could be in charge of planting, first graders documenting growth and second graders conducting a plant shading experiment, Florez said. This could produce up to 100 radishes for all three grades to taste their work and present their findings to each other’s classes.
Students in a Family and Consumer Sciences class at Billy Mills last winter completed a project, Meal Prep Buddies, to assemble meal kits for families. The kits were sent out with recipe cards in English and Spanish to help the families cook at home. The project, funded by the Douglas County Community Foundation, came together into a cookbook, and Florez said students were ecstatic about what they created.
“Everyone should be able to find something that they love to enjoy, and gardening has helped not only the kids in the garden, but we would help make meal kits sometimes in the school year for kids who can’t afford to get meals,” Bella said.
As part of the Farm 2 School program, Cordley, Woodlawn and Langston Hughes elementary schools each received $2,000 in Healthy Habits for Life grants from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas. The money will fund their gardening seasons’ extensions, growing equipment, perennial berry production, solarization and passive weed management, Florez said.
As the F2S program continues to progress, Lawrence community members can see the full gardens sprinkled throughout town, some of which will soon expand. And students can take their experiences out into the world.
“It’s deeply ingrained in our DNA to be connected to earth and food production and eating healthy and eating things that are fresh and not super processed,” Florez said. “So Farm 2 School is super important for making sure that we’re giving our students the opportunity to make that connection with the land and with their food.”
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Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.