May 30, 2014

Fort Worth garden grows lessons for life

The spud count came up short at George C. Clarke Elementary, but the benefits are beyond estimate.

Noemi Nava plunged her hands into the soft dirt of a raised-bed garden and pulled out food as if by magic.

“I was excited, because I was getting dirty and helping my class get more potatoes,” said Nava, 9, a third-grader at George C. Clarke Elementary School in South Fort Worth.

For the last four years, the school’s students have planted nothing but potatoes in its 11-year-old REAL School Gardens beds and containers, and have donated all the spuds to the Travis Avenue Baptist Church food pantry.

In an assembly leading up to Friday’s harvest, the school’s Smart Potatoes Program coordinator, kindergarten teacher Lester Sipma, asked the 460 students if they thought they would surpass last years 209 pounds. He got a resounding “Yes!” But when the last burlap sack was emptied and the totals tallied, the crop came in at only 94 pounds.

“I’m surprised that we got that much,” Sipma told the Star-Telegram. “We had two freezes this year.”

But even small failures present learning opportunities, Sipma said.

Investigating the ruined potatoes created science lessons and gave the students a better understanding of a history lesson about the 1845 potato blight that caused a famine in Ireland.

In other words, the program designed to get students dirty and teach them lessons that they might not grasp any other way worked like a charm, said Ellen Robinson, a program director and lead educator for REAL School Gardens.

Originating in Tarrant County, REAL School Gardens is an organization that builds gardens in low-income schools, then helps teachers learn to use the gardens as extensions of their classrooms. Today it has a network of 100 schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In the last year, the organization has started expanding nationally, opening an office in Washington, D.C., with plans to put gardens in two schools there in the fall.

Built into the Smart Potatoes Program are a series of math, science, nutrition, social studies, language arts and service learning lessons. But it also has something for grown-ups working with the kids — it makes education exciting.

“You’re down on the ground with the students, pulling up potatoes, and their eyes are huge and you know they’re starting to understand the things we’re trying to get them to understand,” Robinson said. “It makes everything we do as adults worth it.”

The program reaches beyond the educators and the students, drawing in about 100 parents and neighborhood volunteers, Sipma said.

“This is an opportunity to see learning and growth firsthand with the students and the community,” he said. “It’s awesome to see parents out here.”

And where the church is concerned, the potatoes rekindled a relationship with George C. Clarke kids that had temporarily dwindled, Sipma said.

“When we decided four years ago to grow nothing but potatoes and donate all of them to Travis Avenue, it was like they rediscovered us,” Sipma said.

Anthony Galata, the church’s missions minister, said that Travis Avenue’s congregation has a special place in its heart for the school that’s only a few blocks from the church’s Berry Street campus.

“In our Kids Hope program, we’re mentors for the kids there,” Galata said. “The Christmas store at Travis, for instance, provides toys for the children of George C. Clarke at Christmas time.”

The 94 pounds of spuds are welcome, perhaps more than ever before, Galata said. Travis Avenue’s benevolence ministry distributes food and clothes to as many as 175 families each Friday. The ministry gets its produce each Thursday from the Tarrant Area Food Bank.

“They didn’t have any potatoes,” Galata said Thursday. “It’s interesting to us how it always seems to work out.”

Robinson, who shares teachers’ passion for education, believes that programs created for the right reason always work out.

“We all have a responsibility to do what’s right for the kids,” Robinson said. “This is an example of how it all comes together in a magical way.”

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