Healthy Schools

Planting school gardens…everywhere

Under cloudy skies on a recent Friday morning, 13-year-old B’Azsae Gale concentrated on burying a feisty irrigation hose in the soil of a white modular planter that is part of a new “learning garden” on Denver’s West Campus.

Students at Denver Public Schools' West Campus pour dirt in the new learning garden.
Students at Denver Public Schools’ West Campus pour dirt in the new learning garden.

As Gale pushed the hose down, calling for more soil from wheelbarrow-toting classmates, he mused about the vegetables he hopes to plant.

“Let’s plant some carrots,” he told Tighe Hutchins, community outreach manager for The Kitchen Community, the Boulder non-profit that created the sleek, modern-looking learning gardens.

“Carrots! Yum. What about broccoli?” asked Hutchins.

“Yeah, broccoli, and some bell peppers,” said Gale, who attends West Generation Academy.

The West Campus learning garden will give 1,200 students at four schools access to fresh produce and hands-on lessons in science, math and health. But it’s just one small part of The Kitchen Community’s ambitious plan to create 180 learning gardens in Colorado, Chicago, Los Angeles and other communities in 2013.

This pledge, which has been recognized by the Clinton Health Matters Initiative, will more than quadruple the 55 learning gardens installed by The Kitchen Community in 2011 and 2012. The Kitchen Community’s goal is to connect kids to real food and combat childhood obesity, which now affects 14.2 percent of Colorado children and 17 percent of American children.

Encouraging healthy living

In addition to facilitating academic lessons, the learning gardens, a series of curved white planting beds made of durable food-grade plastic and interspersed with boulders and benches, are designed to encourage spontaneous play and casual observation of the growing process.

“We want them to be right beside the playground, never hidden behind a fence,” said Dominic Thompson, who leads Colorado region business development at The Kitchen Community.

School garden resources

Colorado

National

At Lafayette’s Ryan Elementary, which got a 4-bed learning garden a year ago, Principal Tobey Basoff likens the garden to an experiential learning field trip in which students never have to leave school grounds.

“Some kids don’t have access to any gardening whatsoever…They get very, very, very excited,” said Basoff. “In our garden, they’re very much encouraged to touch and play and smell.”

Getting kids to eat (and enjoy) veggies is also part of the plan, and research shows school gardens help get the job done. For example, a 2007 study in what is now called the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that sixth-graders who participated in garden-based nutrition programs increased their servings of fruits and vegetables more than students who didn’t participate.

A 2002 study published in the same journal found that a garden-based nutrition program increased fourth-graders’ preferences for certain vegetables that had been planted in their school garden, plus zucchini, which wasn’t present in their garden.

Farm to table then garden to school

The Kitchen Community was founded in 2011 as the philanthropic arm of The Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant that opened in Boulder in 2004 and added a Denver location in 2012. The  restaurant was founded by former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Kimbal Musk, his wife Jen Lewin, who designed the learning garden planters, and Chef Hugo Matheson.

The non-profit, with its emphasis on simple, scalable design and rapid growth, has the air of the high-tech start-up. But instead of making millions, its mission has more to do with raising millions then giving it away in the form of garden infrastructure and implementation.

With the help of corporate sponsorships, grants and other funding secured by The Kitchen Community or its partners, most of the 180 new learning gardens will be installed for free at schools with 60 percent or more low-income students. The city of Chicago has earmarked $1 million of unspent NATO Summit money for learning gardens at 60 district schools in 2013. On average, a learning garden costs about $15,000.

The organization’s extensive application process, which requires the formation of a garden team and letters of support from the school’s principal and the district’s grounds supervisor, is meant to guarantee each school’s commitment to the project.

Schools that have fewer than 60 percent low-income students are also eligible for the gardens, but typically have to raise some of the money themselves. The Kitchen Community gives them discounts equal to the percentage of low-income students attending the school, up to 50 percent.

Making sure gardens grow

The Kitchen Community’s main focus is providing schools with the hardware for their gardens, including the planters, benches, art poles, boulders and shade structures. Typically, tying the garden to curriculum and making sure it’s well-used is the school’s responsibility, often in partnership with a local gardening organization.

Students at Denver's West Campus work to construct the new learning garden.
Students at Denver’s West Campus work to construct the new learning garden.

At Ryan Elementary, which raised $11,000 for its learning garden, the Longmont-based Growe Foundation has been that partner. Executive director Bryce Brown said the organization helps train teachers on how to integrate school gardens into the curriculum and engage parents and students in school garden activities.

Basoff said in addition to planting and harvesting vegetables,  students have used the garden as a destination for sketching, a starting point for graphing exercises and to learn about marketing. Some students are currently planning to create books about the garden using an iPad application. Plus, there’s a service learning component because extra produce is donated to the local food bank at Sister Carmen Community Center.

On Denver’s West Campus, the recent garden prep session was a fitting extension of eighth-grader B’Azsae Gale’s “Tinkering Technology” class, which examines how humans interact with tools and technology.

“Right now we’re learning how to use tools and stuff, so this really helps because we’re using drills and shovels and maybe hammers,” said Gale.

Brown said school gardens, whether The Kitchen Community’s learning gardens or some other kind, are a great educational tool, but added, “There really does need to be the support for parents and teachers to keep them going long term.”

Rebuilding in Alamosa

After three Alamosa elementary schools were consolidated into two new buildings on one campus in 2011, local garden advocates had to start a school garden from scratch. There was plenty of space- 14,000 square feet- but the soil was salty, the land was drab and there were drainage problems.

The learning garden at Alamosa Elementary School.
The learning garden at Alamosa Elementary School.

As part of the garden redevelopment effort, Alamosa Elementary got a 4-bed learning garden from The Kitchen Community last fall.

The 1,000-student school, where 84 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, may be exactly the kind of place where The Kitchen Community hopes to have an impact.

Victoria Bruner, director of Alamosa Community Gardens, which helps run the school garden program, said although agricultural crops, including potatoes, barley, quinoa, lettuce, spinach and carrots, are a major industry in the San Luis Valley, the eating habits of residents often don’t reflect it.

“There’s definitely obesity issues here as well,” she said.

One day, Bruner hopes the school garden, which includes the learning garden beds plus some raised wood and ground-level beds, will  provide at least some of the lettuce for the cafeteria salad bars.

So far, the learning gardens have yielded the most robust crops because of their healthier soil. In addition, they have helped create an attractive visual focus in the developing school garden.

“If you take the beds out it would be this boring piece of flat land,” she said. “The teachers aren’t going to use it if it’s not inviting.”

 

 

Detroit Journalism Cooperative

Restrictions on teacher pay in Detroit schools can scare away applicants — and make it hard to fill 260 classroom positions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

This story is published in partnership with Bridge Magazine, part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  

In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases “max pay” refers to salaries of teachers with master’s degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.

District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L’Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.

Source: Collective bargaining agreements

There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffrey Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes,” according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

This story originally ran in Bridge Magazine on June 15, 2017.

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat, and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.

First Person

I had an anxiety attack in school, and a social worker saved me. What about the students without one?

My first anxiety attack was in a school hallway. Nestled between a doorway and a red bulletin board of exemplary student work, I collapsed. My sight became hazy. My breath became nonexistent. My limbs became numb. Tears stained my cheeks. My heart beat like a broken machine.

I raised my head up to see a teacher closing the door and pulling the blinds, isolating me from the eyes of curious students. I felt like I was merely a nuisance interrupting her lesson.

“Zubaida! Zubaida!” I turned my head to see the school social worker, Ms. McNeil, running down the hall. She sat next to me, held my hand, and slowed my breathing down. I had never talked to the social worker before. However, after my first anxiety attack, she became an important part of my life.

Sadly, I am not the only student of color who suffers from anxiety or other related mental issues. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 41 percent of college students struggle with anxiety. Furthermore, 25 percent of adolescents will struggle with some form of anxiety and 12.5 percent struggle with depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

We also know that not everyone has the courage to reveal their mental issues. Who knows how many students struggle with mental issues and aren’t able to seek help?

The most distressing part is the response to students of color with emotional issues. It is no secret that communities of color can have a certain stigma towards mental illnesses. Sometimes, parents actively refuse to seek help or ignore the signs of mental illness.

national survey in 2015 revealed that Hispanic and black students who have felt overwhelmed are more likely than white students to keep their concerns to themselves. White students were more likely to feel academically and emotionally prepared for college. White students were also twice as likely to get treated for emotional distress. Why?

Meanwhile, many New York City students don’t have access to a social worker or counselor. In fact, there were only 2,902 guidance counselors and 1,275 social workers in New York City this school year. That’s a ratio of one counselor or social worker for every 241 students.

Without professional help, many students turn to substance abuse to cope with their mental illness. Other students continue to accumulate stress from academics and family issues. If parents and teachers want to help their minority students to succeed, they need to invest in mental support.

This isn’t to say we’ve been neglected completely. Counselors in the Bronx have worked on initiatives this past year to help students reach their potential, prepping them for life after high school, and school-based health centers have opened to provide mental health support. Like all things, however, there is always more work to be done.

The stigma surrounding mental illness and mental illness patients in communities of color is certainly unfair and detrimental to our health. However, the fact that this stigma is affecting the success of students of color is even more enraging. We deserve better. Administrators, politicians, and educators must realize the importance of having even more social workers and guidance counselors.

Right now, somewhere in the Bronx, there is a young girl like me, having her first anxiety attack. Her fingers are numb. Her sight is hazy. Her heart is beating like a drum as she watches somebody close the door in her face. She can’t move, a mere witness to her breakdown. But there is no Ms. McNeil who can save her.

Zubaida Bello is a junior at Uncommon Preparatory Charter High School in Brooklyn. She has performed original poetry at the Apollo and New York Live Arts and has been honored by the Black Lives Matter club at her school. In her free time, she enjoys reading and skateboarding.