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’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.