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Garden program blooms at Boston’s public schools

Avery Bleichfeld
Garden program blooms at Boston’s public schools
Boston Green Academy Principal Matt Holzer poses for a portrait in the school’s recycled shipping container farm. BANNER PHOTO

For teacher Cora Carey, the garden beds that appeared at the end of September outside of the kindergarten classrooms at Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School in Roxbury were almost miraculous.

“It’s like magic garden fairies appeared overnight and built these really exemplary raised beds that are like something you would see in a gardening show,” said Carey, who teaches science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics at the school.

In reality, the new garden space wasn’t magic, but rather part of a citywide push to provide more access to gardens in Boston Public Schools, adding on to an existing 79 garden beds in the school system. The Dudley Street school is one of 10 schools in the district receiving the beds, which are run in partnership with Green City Growers, a Somerville-based company that plants and manages the gardens. Seven of the schools receiving the beds are in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

Garden classrooms offer a range of benefits, including a wider exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables, hands-on experience with science education and better access to green spaces.

Elijah Heckstall, the Dudley Street school’s principal, said students in the same class might have very different access to green space at their homes.

“I think this provides a creative way to have opportunities available for all students, regardless of if you live downtown where you’re surrounded by buildings, versus if you live a block away from a park, which could be the case for students who are in the same exact class but very different living circumstances in terms of the environment around them,” Heckstall said.

In a city where green space can be limited, providing students that resource is important, said Matt Holzer, principal at Boston Green Academy.

“In a city like ours, you don’t always have green space, and if you do, you don’t always interact with it in a very personal way,” Holzer said.

Boston Green Academy was the first city school to receive funding from the city’s urban agriculture department, GrowBoston — the same department that is providing funding for the 10 raised garden beds.

Lettuce grows in a hydroponic farm in a recycled shipping container at Boston Green Academy in Brighton. The school’s outdoor classroom was built, in part, using funding from a city program that is now putting 10 raised garden beds in other schools across the district. BANNER PHOTO

The school uses its outdoor classroom — a mix of raised beds, a farmstand and a hydroponic farm in a recycled shipping container — to teach students hands-on science and math skills. It’s the only city school with a career and technical education program in environmental science.

The garden beds also dovetail with the science curriculum for BPS’s younger students. Carey said students in pre-kindergarten through second grade move through a progression of life-science learning standards focused on plants generally and gardening specifically.

“This is really nice because it’s the most direct hands-on support we could ever have bringing those things to life,” Carey said.

Outdoor education opportunities also present students with new ways to learn information, which can be important in helping the diverse range of learners at the school, said Dean Martin, a BPS K–6 science specialist at the Clap Elementary School in Dorchester.

“It’s not just academic, it becomes real-world for them,” Martin said. “I think in some kids, you just see a different sort of attitude as far as an excitement about learning because they see the practical application of it.”

Marc Abelson, science specialist at the Lee Academy Pilot School in Dorchester, said he’s seen students tackle fears of foods and of the outdoors in the garden classrooms.

“Many, at first, they’re scared of insects, scared of bugs — and seeing that at the end how they are excited to find worms and find isopods and find different insects, and how cool and exciting they are, whether it’s for food or just being excited about science in general,” Abelson said.

The “living laboratory” the space offers can be used to help teach skills in STEM, the arts, history and more, among other benefits, said Katherine Walsh, the director of the district’s Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Program.

“These spaces further our city’s commitment to expanding green space and local food access. These spaces spark JOY,” Walsh said in a statement.

Boston Green Academy Principal Matt Holzer poses for a portrait in front of the school’s recycled shipping container farm. Holzer said gardening spaces, like the school’s outdoor classroom, are an important chance to offer students access to green space. BANNER PHOTO

And the garden classrooms give students a space to be involved, Boston Green Academy’s Holzer said. The recently redesigned outdoor classroom at the school is frequently used, he said.

“People just feel proud when they see an investment in the space,” he said.

Carey noted that it also gives students a better understanding of where their food comes from, which is important as the city and world face a warming climate.

“With all the changes that our environment, that the planet, is going through and all the pinches on our resources, it’s going to be pretty important that people understand what choices they’re making with what they eat and where it comes from, how it grows and how that interacts with the climate,” Carey said.

Research, too, has shown the benefits of access to school gardens. A 2022 study published in the Journal of School Nursing found that access to garden-based programing in schools led students to eat more fruits and vegetables even outside of the program. A 2020 study published in the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition found participation in school garden programs in Mississippi might lead to higher self-esteem and emotional self-worth.

The new garden beds are part of a district-wide effort to improve its outdoor education programming. In 2021, BPS created an outdoor teaching and learning manager role. It also is running a program supporting “outdoor teaching and learning champions” — identified teachers working to expand the outdoor focus.

Walsh said the new beds further an effort to offer outdoor education to all BPS students, as well as other efforts in that district program.

“Our commitment to sustainability and climate justice is not about ‘the what’ but rather ‘the who’ — we must continue our collective efforts to make BPS schools healthier, greener, and more equitable for all students, staff, and families,” Walsh said in a statement. “We must support students as climate action leaders and back them with education, funding, and green jobs.”

Abelson, who is one of the identified “teacher champions,” said the effort includes going to gardening and greenhouse programs around the city to see what efforts can be brought back to schools.

According to the district, as of 2022, about one-third of the 79 BPS school gardens were led by teacher champions. The others were partner-led, like the 10 new GrowBoston-funded school gardens.

Boston Green Academy, environment, garden beds at schools, school gardens