Gardens give schools living classrooms and more

Chef Linton Hopkins had finished preparing a salad, of all things, for about 20 hungry fifth-graders.

“Do you want to have a taste?,” Hopkins, the award-winning chef behind the elegant Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch Public House asked the students at Gwinnett County’s Knight Elementary School.

Nearly every child raised their hands. Some of the kids raced toward him.

“That’s healthy,” said Mahliet Demissie, a slim, bespectacled 10-year-old with a big smile who wanted seconds.

What’s wrong with kids eating habits these days?

Nothing, say the folks who organized the cooking demonstration.

The salad the students ate came from lettuce and other vegetables growing on campus. The students picked the leafy vegetables themselves. Knight Elementary is among 125 schools in metro Atlanta with a community garden. It is part of a region-wide effort to provide hands-on lessons, primarily about the environment. By 2020, organizers hope to have a garden in every elementary, middle and high school in metro Atlanta’s five largest school districts: Atlanta, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett.

Supporters have a lot of work to do. There are gardens in only about two out of every ten schools in those districts.

“It’s a big goal,” said Leesa Carter, executive director of the Captain Planet Foundation, the group leading the charge.

The Captain Planet Foundation was started in 1991 by the brash, billionaire media mogul and environmentalist Ted Turner, who once proclaimed “We need a superhero for the Earth. Let’s call him Captain Planet.” As part of the push, foundation leaders came up with a pilot program of community gardens at schools four years ago.

The foundation says it needs more money and volunteers to reach its goals. It receives no money from local school districts. Corporate sponsors are its biggest donors. The cost to start a garden is typically $2,500.

At Knight Elementary, which has had a garden for two years, students study the life cycles of butterflies in their garden for science lessons. They’ve learned more about American Indians by planting indigenous crops. The school is planning a greenhouse. It has two not-so-intimidating scarecrows, under whose gazes students plant beds of radishes, broccoli and brussels sprouts.

The region has joined other major cities and school districts in going gardening. Chicago celebrated its 100th learning garden in December. Washington, D.C. officials assist schools in building and maintaining gardens as a teaching tool. In California, the Berkeley Unified School District is believed to be the nation’s only urban district with a garden in every school.

Carter said some students have returned home to nudge their parents to start a garden. And the foundation has given local food banks some of the food grown in gardens to help low-income students whose families don’t have the money or space to start a garden.

Fifth-grader Owen Lambert said he likes vegetables more since the school started its own garden. One favorite, he said, is green peas.

“I love it,” the 10-year-old said. “It takes me into nature a little bit and learn more about plants.”

The foundation’s program is in its second full year, not enough time to conduct a thorough study to determine if the effort helps improve standardized test performance, officials say. But as hopeful clues, they cite studies that show elementary students involved in gardening do better on science achievement tests. The foundation and educators developed lessons based on the garden, and students who take them score 34 percent better on a test of standards-based questions, the foundation said.

Sally Lehmann, Knight Elementary’s assistant principal, says she’s noticed a “climb” in science scores among some students on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. One science teacher, she said, does as many lessons in the garden as possible.

“The more you can make these experiences concrete, the more meaningful it is for them,” Lehman said.

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