The Other 60 Percent

Domes sprouting on Colorado campuses

Schools across the state are investing in domed greenhouses as a way to transform gardening into a year-round learning activity for students and to supply school lunchrooms with homegrown fresh produce regardless of the season outside.

Students from Crest Academy in Salida examine plants growing in the domed greenhouse a block from their school.

Students and parents at Flagstaff Academy, a public charter school in Longmont, last month completed building an 850-square-foot domed greenhouse, a project three years in the making.

In Colorado Springs District 11, officials have partnered with Pikes Peak Urban Gardens to build an even larger greenhouse at Galileo School of Math and Science on the school’s old tennis courts. Funded through a federal Magnet Schools of America grant, construction on the $50,000 dome will begin within the month and should be complete by the time classes resume.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest in school greenhouses now,” said Allen Werthan, founder and executive director of Global Children’s Gardens, an Evergreen-based non-profit that over the past few years has helped seven Colorado schools install greenhouse domes, including the one at Flagstaff Academy.

“There’s just more awareness that healthy eating is significant for kids,” he said.

Werthan recently partnered with TV chef Jamie Oliver to build a dome in Arizona for Navajo youth.

“They’re fighting challenges there of a fast food-only diet and no fresh vegetables, and rampant obesity and diabetes. The dream of the tribal elders was to connect kids back to their traditional diet,” he said.

In Colorado, Global Children’s Gardens helped the Southern Ute Academy in Ignacio built a 22-foot domed greenhouse in 2006 for similar reasons.

“At the Ute Academy, their motivation is to fight the twin plagues of diabetes and obesity,” Werthan said, as well as to preserve the wisdom of tribal elders in the area of traditional medicinal plants.

“Four years of Sundays” to build a greenhouse

Werthan, who ran a mountain school for children and a natural foods restaurant in Evergreen for many years before starting Global Children’s Gardens in 2003, has always had a passion for connecting children with the natural world.

Growing Spaces, a Pagosa Springs company, offers domed greenhouses in different sizes.

He says he spent “four years of Sundays” building his first greenhouse, only to watch it collapse under 4 feet of snow one winter.

“That led to the search for a greenhouse suitable for global distribution, regardless of climate,” he said.

He found it at Growing Spaces, a Pagosa Springs company that sells domed greenhouses in sizes ranging from small 150-square-foot structures to domes covering more than 2,000 square feet. Solar-powered, the domes stay warm throughout winter, even though they’re off the electrical grid.

Launched in 1989 as an offshoot of John Denver’s Windstar Foundation, Growing Spaces has sold domes to 80 schools around the country, including 18 in Colorado. The company has seen phenomenal growth in recent years, said CEO Puja Dhyan Parsons.

“We grew from a company of four to a company of 23, and most of that growth has been in the last five years,” she said. “2008 was our biggest year until this one. It’s just been steady growth because of all the interest in sustainability.”

“Schools are interested in our Growing Domes because they’re really designed and built for the Rocky Mountains,” she added. “We feel we’ve mastered the climate here, the snowload. And sometimes schools want to put a dome in the South 40. It can be remote and not even tied into the main water system, and still be sustainable.”

Schools who partner with Global Children’s Gardens get assistance from Werthan in figuring out how to fund and build a dome from Growing Spaces. Prices start at $5,000 for materials for a do-it-yourself 15-foot-diameter dome.

“I can speak to PTAs, guide them through the process. I can share from my experience what they can create, I can offer help with siting, with budgeting, with fund-raising suggestions,” Werthan said.

Erecting a dome “like an old-fashioned barn-raising”

That’s by no means the only way to get a dome. Domes can be purchased direct from manufacturers, and professional crews can be hired to install it. Growing Spaces will supply a crew to build its largest domes because they’re so tall. But Werthan prefers the community-built to the professionally-built dome.

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“It’s like an old-fashioned barn-raising,” he said. “You have so much sense of ownership when you build it yourself.”

Montessori School of Evergreen built its dome, with GCG’s help, more than seven years ago. It’s proven a blessing time and again, said Beth Heller, the head of school. Initially built for use by middle schoolers at MSE’s Marshdale campus, the school later added a second greenhouse for its younger students on its Troutdale campus.

“Part of Montessori is real-life problem-solving, and our middle schoolers were thinking how they could get money to go to the Teton Science School for a week,” Heller said. “They figured out if they grew herbs, they could make herb vinegar and sell it for a profit. And we thought a greenhouse was something we could integrate throughout our curriculum.”

Now the middle school students take greenhouse and cooking elective classes, using fresh ingredients grown there. At the Troutdale campus, each class from pre-school through third grade has its own plot of land inside the greenhouse. The greenhouse also houses turtles and fish.

“The children love taking care of the animals, and we talk about how a symbiotic system is created, what they need from us and what we need from them,” Heller said.

Domes spreading in school districts across the state

Among the other domed greenhouses sprouting on Colorado campuses recently:

  • Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale built its dome in the spring of 2010 to serve as a hands-on agricultural science classroom for students. The project is a partnership between the school and Fat City Farmers, a sustainable agriculture education program, and the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt.
  • Yampah Mountain High School in Carbondale installed a domed greenhouse in 2009.
  • Clear Creek High School in Evergreen installed a domed greenhouse a year ago in partnership with Rotary Club and Beau Jo’s Pizza. The students sell back the herbs they grow in the greenhouse to the restaurant. “It’s a cool model in terms of the funding for it, and the motivation,” said Werthan. “It’s an offshoot of the biology department but with an entrepreneurial component.”
  • GCG owns a greenhouse in Salida that is used by students from nearby Longfellow Elementary, Chaffee County Montessori and Crest Academy. Students there have grown an abundance of fresh vegetables inside the greenhouse and have been very successful in selling their fresh salad green at a local farmer’s market, Werthan said.

Springs dome to be used for science classes

At Galileo School in Colorado Springs, the Growing Space domed greenhouse will be used to grow produce year round and the district’s Food and Nutrition Department will buy all the produce grown for use in the school cafeteria. The funds from the sales of produce will pay for a part-time master gardener to oversee the growing spaces.

In addition, some areas inside the greenhouse will be set aside for students to conduct plant and soil research for science classes, said district spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

Besides the covered dome, the remainder of the tennis courts at Galileo will be converted into raised beds, with gathering areas for school classes. Immediately outside the dome, the school will install a sensory garden and a permaculture garden, she said.

“When the grant was written four years ago to establish Galileo, a greenhouse was included as something they wanted to do as part of the curriculum,” said Jessica Sharp, director of grants for the Colorado Springs district.

“At that time, we couldn’t find the appropriate person to contract with. It’s taken us this long to find something of high enough quality that it was worth the money, and something that didn’t require a lot of construction-related costs.”

Charlie Warren, science director at Flagstaff Academy, a K-8 charter school with a science and technology emphasis, said he expects every child in the school to log some greenhouse time during the coming school year.

“This is a big part of our answering a challenge of how you do outdoor education in a suburban environment,” he said. “This is a big chunk of outdoors where kids can get their hands into the dirt and find out where their food comes from.”

Poverty in America

Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.