First Person

School gardens yield healthy summer crops

children in garden
Students at Denver's Fairview Elementary work in their garden during the last school year.

Many school gardens – such a hive of activity just a month ago – look dormant today, their early-season crops long ago harvested and their young gardeners now gone for summer break.

But look a bit below the surface, and you’ll see lots of things are happening. Some things are getting bigger and new things are taking root – and we’re not just talking about fruits and vegetables.

Around Colorado, the school garden movement continues to expand.

In the metro area, the partnership between Slow Food Denver and Denver Urban Gardens brought gardens and gardening and nutrition education to 45 schools this year. (Read more about Slow Food Denver in this EdNews Parent post.)

Two-thirds of the schools are in DPS but others are in Commerce City, Jeffco, Englewood, Cherry Creek, Aurora and a smattering of private schools. Even Graland Country Day School got a garden for its kindergarteners and first-graders.

And more are in the works, said Andy Nowak, director of Slow Food Denver.

Youth farmers markets expanding in Denver ‘food deserts’

Most importantly, Slow Food Denver and DUG recently won a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand its Denver Youth Farmers Market Coalition, which will bring more fresh produce into neighborhoods identified as “food deserts,” those places where full-service grocery stores are not easily accessible for residents without transportation.

The grant will fund market stands, tents and tables and will pay stipends to garden leaders, as well as pay for chefs to come in and show students how to use the fresh produce.

“Our goal is to increase the availability of Colorado fresh fruits and vegetables into these neighborhoods,” said Nowak.

Last year, four schools in west Denver participated in youth farmers markets. At least 10 schools will be running them this summer, starting in August and going through October, he said.

Also due for expansion is the organization’s Seed to Table program, which saw school gardens producing food that could be consumed on site, in the school cafeteria.

“Last year, we did 14 such gardens, and the school district loved it. We’ve been asked to triple the program in size, so we’ll have more schools and more produce coming in from the schools,” Nowak said.

Professionals to farm acreage at two Denver schools

At two DPS schools, the “school gardens” will quite literally become the “school farms” this summer.

The district is set to enter into a groundbreaking contract with a professional farming company to transform nearly two acres of vacant land at McGlone Elementary in Montbello and at Bradley International School in southeast Denver into productive farmland growing crops that will feed DPS students.

The project has been in the works for nearly two years now as school officials worked out all the kinks.

“We’re finally at the stage where it will get off the ground,” said Leo Lesh, DPS director of food and nutrition services. “When you deal with public school grounds, there are certain things you have to do due diligence on – liability, what to do with any excess produce and things like that. But that’s all been worked through now, and we’re excited to get going.”

DPS will rent the land to TSR Group of Golden, more commonly known as Agriburbia. Agriburbia will send in professional farmers to tend the land and grow the crops DPS wants. Upon harvest, DPS will buy the food, which will go directly into the school cafeterias.

“It won’t be the end-all. I’ll still have to buy produce,” said Lesh, who spends about $3 million a year stocking fresh fruit and vegetables for DPS food programs. “And a lot depends on the weather. If Mother Nature plays tricks on us, we might not get as much as we hope. But if the stars align, we should be able to supply more of the vegetables for those two schools for August, September and October.”

Denver’s garden-to-farmlands experiment unique

Quint Redmond, owner of Agriburbia, acknowledges the two Denver gardens-to-farmland will be going in a little late this year and there’s still a bit of irrigation work that needs to be done before any crops are planted.

On districts growing food
“We calculate how many calories are consumed by a school district, and we know how much land we’d need to grow that many calories. We track every tomato plant.”
— Quint Redmond, Agriburbia

“But we’re not a single commodity farmer,” he said. “We plant and harvest continually, so we’ll be planting late season crops. We’ll plant some tomatoes, and if we have an Indian summer, we may be harvesting spinach at Thanksgiving.”

As far as anyone involved in the project can tell, this is a first-in-the-nation experiment with an urban school district actually growing its own food in a much more intentional way than the hit-or-miss approach of typical school gardens.

Redmond is convinced it’s possible for DPS and other school districts to home-grow a huge amount of their produce needs.

“We calculate how many calories are consumed by a school district, and we know how much land we’d need to grow that many calories,” he said. “We track every tomato plant.”

At present, locally-grown food barely makes a dent in most school district’s needs.

“A lot of districts try to buy local, but there simply isn’t enough locally-grown food,” Redmond said. “Even at farmers markets, during the core season, there’s some produce that’s actually from in-state, but most of the time it comes up from Arizona.”

Ultimately, Redmond is betting the school-as-farm-landlord model will become huge.

“We do the work, the school district owns the food. The really good thing is, the money for the food doesn’t have to leave the school district. We grow whatever they tell us. We custom farm. We’ve taken a vacant, empty lot and turned it into an asset. The private sector wins, people get jobs, and the district pays about the same for food as they would otherwise, but the food is twice to three times as good.”

Teachers head to the gardens in Boulder

In Boulder, the Growe Foundation partnered with Boulder Valley School District to develop 14 garden-to-table programs in various schools this spring. (Read more about last spring’s planting of school gardens in Boulder Valley).

Before school ended for the year, the gardens had harvested about 135 pounds of lettuce, which went into some 5,000 school salads, said Bryce Brown, executive director of the foundation.

During the summer, only a few of those gardens are actively being cultivated by summer school students. Otherwise, school and parent volunteers will quietly tend the gardens to keep them healthy and ready to go once students return in the fall, Brown said.

Instead of students, it’s teachers who will be spending time in some Boulder Valley school gardens this summer. Professional development workshops are planned in the gardens to help teachers learn ways to integrate gardening into their classroom curriculum. (Read more about how school gardens help students learn other academic subjects in this EdNews Parent post with fun planting video).

Special needs students digging in at Garden of Youth

In a tiny plot of land a stone’s throw from Denver’s North High School, three DPS special education students are spending the summer tending the DPS Garden of Youth.

The students are part of a summer internship program that provides special-needs teens with training in basic work skills and problem-solving. They also earn some money – minimum wage for 90 hours of work over the summer – and get credit toward graduation.

boy in garden
North High School student Daniel Sainz works his plot in the DPS Garden of Youth.

Most internships end at the end of June but the gardeners will be able to continue through summer growing season and into fall. In addition to working with master gardener Francie Bronner to learn how to tend a garden, they’ll also have the opportunity to sell some of their produce at the Highland United Neighborhoods farmers markets.

“There’s a sense of ownership and accomplishment already, even though they’re not really at the harvesting point yet,” said Monica Schultz, ACA Career Paths coordinator for DPS. “People often underestimate students with disabilities and what they can do.”

The garden plot was donated by the Gardens at St. Elizabeth, a senior living community a couple of blocks from North. Schultz plans to arrange for some inter-generational activities this summer as well, inviting St. Elizabeth residents to visit the garden and partner with the teens in some hands-on projects.

Nineteen-year-old Daniel Sainz, one of the teen gardeners, hasn’t done much gardening before but he likes the work of watering and weeding.

“I just like being outside, working with my hands,” he said. “If the plants get too hot, they’ll die, so I’m learning to take care of them. The jalapenos started looking like they would die, so I put some more mulch on them and now they’re doing good.

So far, the only thing the teens have harvested is radishes, and Daniel admits he hasn’t sampled them.

“I guess I should,” he said, reluctantly.

Classmate Angelica Garcia, 18, has been surprised by how persistent the bugs have been.

“You have to get down on your knees and take the bugs out one by one,” she said. “There are a lot of them.”


First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.