After success with garden, Haverhill’s Nancy Burke starts an orchard
By Jean Conley
O n a steaming hot day in July, the learning garden at Haverhill High School is alive with the sounds of Summer Program
students and educators watering, weeding the plants,
laughing and enjoying the fruits of their labors.
Strawberries are in abundance. Basil, chives,
cilantro and summer flowers scent the air. The fruits
and vegetables are coming along nicely in garden
beds, which are raised to waist height so students in
wheelchairs can reach them easily.
The garden, in what was once a trash-strewn
interior courtyard, never would have come about
without the vision, persistence and direction
of Nancy Burke, who was named MTA’s 2017
Education Support Professional of the Year in April.
Burke, a paraprofessional who works with some
of the school’s most challenged special education
students in the life skills program, reclaimed the
unused space several years ago so she could get her
students outside in the fresh air, show them where
their food comes from, and help them develop a
sense of accomplishment.
Recently, Burke’s ambitions have expanded
again. This time, she has reclaimed another courtyard
in the school, and an orchard has taken root.
“This was another courtyard that was abandoned
and not doing anything,” says Burke, pointing to a
corner of the lot. “Thigh-high grass. Trash. It was
The courtyard is now alive with apple, plum and
pear trees. “Everything is on a trellis system,” Burke
explains. “The trees are all dwarf, so they won’t get
any higher than eight feet.” When the trees grow up,
she adds, they will grow over the trellis “so anyone
in a wheelchair can go down the center aisle and
pick all the apples they want. The walkers can be on
the outside, and we’ll put flowers in the corner and
blueberries along the wall.”
Burke received a Learning and Leadership Grant
from the National Education Association last spring
to help with expenses. She said that without the
grant, she’d be “struggling to get this done.”
There are plans to add benches and a watering
system. A shed has been donated, and seedlings will
be grown in a brand new greenhouse, a gift from the
Class of 2016. On both walls of the hallway leading
out to the orchard, art students plan to paint murals.
Fellow educators are equally excited. A math
teacher whose classroom faces the courtyard donated
money for a patio so she can bring her students
The orchard “will be the most beautiful green
space in the school, for everyone to use,” Burke says,
adding that “a great deal of ‘Hillie Pride’” has gone
into the project.
“I am truly grateful for all the love and support
from the students and staff of Haverhill High
School,” she notes.
“My goal here,” she adds, “is that I wanted to
bring the garden and the orchard to the kids. A lot
of students live in a food desert. They do not have
exposure to fresh, healthy foods. Some of my kids
never get out and go to an orchard. They’ve never
picked an apple or a blueberry in their lives.
“But here’s the big thing,” Burke continues.
“I’ve managed to get a lot of folks involved. They
want to be involved. Everyone from the Student
Council to the new Garden Club, the football and
wrestling teams, Junior ROTC, they will never forget
E llalandra Arakelow is president of the Garden Club. The HHS senior is a member of the school’s rigorous Classical Academy program
and has been busy applying to colleges, but she says
that when she met Burke, she had to get involved.
“Nancy just attracts good people. She just has
this way about her,” Arakelow says. “She took on
so much responsibility to give her students an
opportunity for something great.”
In late September, Burke’s students will hold
their fall harvest, rummaging through the potatoes,
onions, carrots, peppers, and other late-summer
vegetables to find the finest specimens. Those will
be entered into the Topsfield Fair, where Burke’s
students won blue First Place ribbons last year.
With the garden in full gear and the orchard
project underway, Burke reflects on how the learning
garden she envisioned for her students became a
lesson in empathy and giving back for the whole
And then she is off again, planning for what
should be done with all the food being grown.
“I want us to grow enough to take care of all the
programs here at the high school,” she says. That
includes “students in the coffee café who cook food
and serve it to people” and the ESPs “who do the
cooking for all the students in the building.”
“I have big plans,” she says with a laugh. “I do.”
Above, Nancy Burke and Karen
Bona, a special needs teacher at
Consentino Middle School, work
with middle school student Tommy
Hardy in the garden. At left, Burke
and Ellalandra Arakelow, a senior at
Haverhill High School, discuss plans
for the orchard. The orchard “will
be the most beautiful green space
in the school, for everyone to use,”
Burke says, adding that “a great
deal of ‘Hillie Pride’” has gone into
Photos by Jean Conley