2017-04-21 / Schools

Gardens bring science to life

New standards encourage schools to plant and grow
By Hector Gonzalez

ALL HANDS ON DECK—Above,first-graders Daniel Fernandez and Avery Adair plant corn Tuesday as their class works on the school garden at White Oak Elementary School. At right, first-grader Emily Dexter presses down the dirt around a corn plant. Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers ALL HANDS ON DECK—Above,first-graders Daniel Fernandez and Avery Adair plant corn Tuesday as their class works on the school garden at White Oak Elementary School. At right, first-grader Emily Dexter presses down the dirt around a corn plant. Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers Jennifer Hemphill took her science lesson outdoors this week.

Under puffy clouds, the first-grade teacher at Simi Valley’s White Oak Elementary sat her students in a circle next to the school’s new garden, which is taking shape on a small section of the campus’ grassy playing fields.

“We’re going to plant root vegetables, things that grow in the ground. Like what?” Hemphill asked her class of 25 students.

“Carrots! Radishes! Potatoes!” the children chimed.

School gardens aren’t new. The idea received a boost from a 2006 state law that created the California Instructional School Gardens Program and provided $15 million for public schools to build campus gardens.

But the more recent landscaping changes, like the project at White Oak, are being prompted by the state’s new Next Generation Science Standards, which stress interactive learning and combining different science disciplines. Adopted by California in 2013, the new standards are scheduled to be fully integrated into the state’s K-12 public schools by 2018-19.

In response, a growing number of schools across California, like White Oak, are putting in gardens to help students succeed under the new standards.

Although the state education department does not keep data on the number of gardens in public schools, about 68 percent of 520 schools that responded to a 2014 survey by Berkeley-based environmental consulting firm Inverness Associations said they have school gardens.

“This is all coming about because of the Next Generation Science Standards,” White Oak Principal Nicole Perryman said. “We really wanted to be a school that has that environmental science component to it, where the kids have that hands-on learning and experience.”

Younger students at the junior kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school will use the garden to learn about the growth cycles of plants, while fifth- and sixth-graders will learn about composting principals and recycling, the principal said.

‘Living laboratory’

According to San Francisco-based nonprofit Green Schoolyards America, school gardens can act as “a direct extension of the classroom” by providing “a living laboratory” where students can actively engage.

“ This type of learning has been shown to give students tools they need for real-world success, motivate students and create self-directed learners,” the group’s website says. “The opportunities to support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum are almost limitless. Examples include analyzing soil samples, growing gardens to learn about plant and water cycles, tracking rainfall or learning about watershed and stormwater management.”

At Big Springs Elementary in Simi Valley, teachers use their garden to reinforce geometry skills. Students research, design and create their own garden boxes.

At Monte Vista Middle School in Camarillo, students can take an agriculture elective class held in the campus’ “farm” section.

“The kids not only plant the plants and eat what they plant, they learn the science behind it,” said Debbie Maki, director of curriculum for the Pleasant Valley School District.

At least two other schools in the Camarillo district have gardens on campus, she said.

Getting dirty

Built with donations from parents and local businesses, White Oak Elementary’s garden consists of eight wooden planters, each about 6 feet long by 3 feet wide. The boxes sit over plastic lining designed to keep out gophers.

“We wanted it outdoors in our play area because it has the most room, but we also wanted it to be close to the classrooms,” Perryman said.

On Tuesday, parent Sid Plagenza and his son Jackson, 7, a second-grader at White Oak, shoveled a load of topsoil Plagenza had brought to the garden in the bed of his pickup truck. Meanwhile, Hemphill’s students helped smooth out the soil.

Students began planting in the garden this week.

“When it’s a classroom’s week to visit the garden, the teacher will send a note home to parents,” Perryman said. “Their kids might be coming home a little dirtier that day.”

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