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Calif. Schools Uses Gardens As Classrooms

February 19, 2003

WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Gustavo Onate digs his hands through the wet plants and soft dirt and comes up with a prize.

``Look! Snails,″ the third-grader says, holding two squirming shells high.

His classmates at Evergreen Elementary School squeal, then lean closer to examine them, ignoring the ladybugs, the worms and the plants they’d been pulling out of the garden plot just minutes before.

Here the little plot is more than a garden. It’s also an outdoor classroom, where teacher Heather Best illustrates science, nutrition, history and math lessons.

In addition to reading books about biology and the life of plants, students can put their hands in the dirt, plant a seed, track its growth and eat the result. It’s the hands-on experience that keeps students’ interest, Best said.

``Last year we grew potatoes and we made soup out of it,″ she said. She lowered her voice. ``It was kind of gross. But they ate it.″

The state Department of Education is encouraging schools to use gardens with a series of books that show teachers how to link them to lesson plans. The latest book, ``A Child’s Garden of Standards,″ was published in December and will be marketed nationwide.

The book ``takes grades 2-7 and shows how activities in the garden guide meets the state standards,″ said Ann Evans, a consultant to the state education department.

Younger students start by tracking the life of a vegetable from seed to dinner table. More advanced grades use the garden to discuss the history of agriculture and its effect on where and how civilizations settled.

``Kids are naturally curious,″ Evans said. ``They get their hands in the dirt and they want to know what’s going on in there. It’s magical to water a seed and watch it grow. Or find out why it didn’t grow.″

There have long been gardens in schools linked with 4-H programs or agriculture studies, but using the garden as a classroom is the new emphasis, she said.

For a more urban school district, the school garden teaches students where vegetables come from and how to tend them.

``Most of the students in our districts do not have gardens. They might have a 10-by-10 patch of grass,″ said Marika Bergsund, the garden coordinator for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District.

Bergsund, who contributed to the state’s book on standards, tries to make learning ``come alive″ in the garden. It’s also ``a great way to teach nutrition. It’s sort of an underhanded way, but it works,″ Bergsund said.

For example, one of the science standards that first graders should learn is how to identify the parts of a plant. So she planned a garden with lots of edible ones.

``We grow the root vegetables at the end. Then at the middle, we grow Swiss chard for the stems; the lettuce is the leaves. The broccoli and edible flowers like pansies and violas are next. Then peas, because when you’re eating peas, you’re eating the seeds,″ Bergsund said.

Some 3,000 California schools have campus gardens, according to state estimates. They vary from small garden plots with just a few plants to a Los Angeles high school that sells the vegetables raised.

The two-acre garden at Evergreen Elementary School doubles as a community garden for many of the Hmong, Mien and Laotian families whose children attend the West Sacramento school. That helps teachers build a relationship with recently immigrated parents, said Principal Gretchen Mounier.

``It’s a learning place, but it is also a place that ties parents who have very little connection to school,″ Mounier said.

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District built its five gardens about four years ago. A $50,000 grant from the California Endowment allowed two schools to expand their gardens and to build the lesson plan incorporating the state’s standards.

Other schools get help with grants from agricultural organizations or universities and all rely on volunteers, said Evans. There are no state funds earmarked for the garden programs.

``For the most part, the schools and the parents gather the funds to start the gardens,″ she said. ``It’s really been a labor of love.″


On the Net:

California Department of Education: http://www.cde.ca.gov/cdepress/catalog/nutried.html

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