Palo Alto garden

Palo Alto Middle School seventh-graders spend time in their school garden measuring plants and recording their findings. Six planters and 14 raised beds make up the courtyard garden, funded through an Education Foundation grant and federal college readiness funds.

Courtesy photo

Determined to teach the life cycle by growing life out of the earth, Palo Alto Middle School transformed a courtyard and pulled students into the dirt.

About four years ago, Principal Matt Widacki said his science teachers pointed out to him that curriculum is ripe with the notion that the best way to teach life science is through a school garden.

Science teacher Holly Adams was not enthusiastic about diving into grant writing, but when a broken leg slowed her and her teaching partner Sandra Angell was on maternity leave, the pair decided it was time.

Last fall, the school won a $4,755 Education Foundation grant. The federal Gear-Up college readiness program kicked in additional funding.

Just before spring break the school received loads of compost and rocks and students and staff worked to mix soil, spread rubber matting and build multiple raised beds.

In science class this spring, students have labored to water their garden, measure the growing plants, spread compost, trim away dead leaves and have started harvesting.

“When we first started and they put their hands in the dirt and patted it down, they had never done that before,” Adams said. “They were so disconnected with how we get our food. They said, ‘Can we eat this even though it didn’t come from the store?’”

Today, there are raised beds yielding strawberries, onions, spinach, carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, peas, spinach, broccoli, okra, cilantro, chives, potatoes, cabbages, leeks, rosemary and oregano.

School surveys showed 80 percent of Palo Alto’s students had never cared for a garden.

Research indicated the raised beds would be most cost-effective and dedicated walkway space around the beds would help protect the garden.

“It came to life,” Widacki said. “They used the word ‘botany’ for the first time.”

“They have had an outdoor experience they don’t get at home,” Adams said. “Now they ask, ‘Are we going out in the garden today?’ They each got to take home some cilantro. Someone told me they ate it on some fish.”

A space that used to collect wind-strewn trash is now teaching life science.

“I like going out and looking at the strawberries,” said seventh-grader Ahmyria Simmons. “It’s a good way to help the school. We’re getting more vegetables. I like to take out what’s growing and come out and water the plants.”

“I think it’s super cool — I really do,” seventh-grader Deja Gomez said. “Before, it was empty and not really healthy. We did a lot of research and wanted it to be all organic.”

“It’s cool because after we did this I planted at home, too,” said Gomez, explaining that she and her family were growing tomatoes, peppers, jalapenos and herbs.

Students have asked their principal if they could come to the school during the summer to continue to water their garden and harvest vegetables. A garden club is in the making.

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