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

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.