By Bob Duffy
A multi-year push to help students and teachers establish gardens at Massachusetts schools continues to bear fruit.
The Massachusetts Farm to School project,
started in 2004 and based in Amherst, encourages
students to learn where their food comes from and
persuades them to get their hands dirty as they learn
how to lead healthier lives.
Gardens at public schools were commonplace
through the first half of the 20th century, but
diminished in popularity with the rise of processed
foods. In the past few years, however, environmental
concerns and student health problems such as obesity
and diabetes have led to a revival of localized efforts
to grow produce.
In addition to promoting healthier lifestyles,
school gardens enrich many subject areas and
students’ abilities. They also promote teamwork
among educators, students of all ages and
At the Dr. Elmer S. Bagnall School in Groveland,
the garden is incorporated into just about every facet
of the day. Students learn about life sciences through
the soils the garden uses and the produce it grows. In
math, students estimate how many plants can fit into
limited spaces, measure the perimeter of the garden
and estimate the volume of the beds.
The literacy lab includes the use of gardening
books, and vocabulary develops as students converse
with teachers about everything from plant life to
components of the soil.
Establishing the Bagnall School garden took
a lot of planning and work. After the idea was
suggested by a parent, a group of educators, families
and businesses conducted research and obtained a
$5,000 NEA grant through the MTA before getting
the project approved by the local school committee.
With the help of a joint NEA-MTA professional
development program, education support
professionals took the lead, obtaining technical
assistance on the types of plants that would grow
best in their area and providing curriculum guides
within the state’s frameworks on how to use the
gardens as a teaching tool. The NEA is using
Massachusetts to pilot the expansion of the program
to other states around the nation.
The program partners ESPs with local farmers
they can call on for help and advice on everything
from plant selection to the timing of crops.
“There is growing interest in this issue, and
each year we have had increasing demand for these
types of professional development programs,” said
Donna Johnson, president of the University Staff
Association at UMass Amherst. Johnson, who is also
a member of the MTA Board of Directors, has helped
spearhead expansion of the gardening effort.
The number of public school districts
establishing school gardens “has grown
exponentially in the last several years,” said Debi
Hogan, executive director of the Massachusetts
chapter of Agriculture in the Classroom, a national
nonprofit organization that has worked since 1984 to
provide training and resources for educators.
Interest in school gardens “has really surged in
the last two to three years because people are really
starting to see the benefits,” Hogan added.
“The professional development provided by the
MTA around establishing school gardens has been
awesome,” said Donna Beeler, an ESP at Haverhill
“This type of professional development fits right
in with our goal to try to get the students to eat more
fruits and vegetables,” noted Rachel Oliveira, who
works in food services at the Frederick W. Hartnett
Middle School in Blackstone. A school garden
reinforces the concept of eating right by engaging
the students in the process of growing their own food
and might even influence what they are willing to
consume, she said.
“You can’t force kids to eat carrots over cookies
if they don’t want to, so we hope that if the students
start learning the process and they grow the healthy
food themselves, they are going to be more likely to
try these healthy foods and maybe even enjoy them,”
said Debra Hebert, who also works in food services
at the school.
School gardens also offer a way to integrate the
community into school activities, which promotes
increased family and community involvement.
Over the summer, for example, volunteer
families share the job of tending the Bagnall School
garden. A journal is left in the garden for families to
record their thoughts and leave messages for other
At Haverhill High School, a dedicated team
of ESPs plans to use the school garden to provide
activities that teach cooperation, responsibility and
patience, as well as to increase self-esteem among
students in the Learning for Life program for
disabled students who are transitioning to adulthood.
“These kids have never had the opportunity
to learn to garden and grow their own fruits and
vegetables, so the idea is to teach them how to do
it for themselves and also to provide fresh fruit and
vegetables to the school,” said Beeler.
For more information on school gardens and
the Farm to School Project, contact Johnson by
Kindergarten paraprofessional Kelly Procurot works with students in the Bagnall School garden.
Photo by Bob Duffy
Winter Hill is typical of an urban school. Among
its students, 84 percent are low-income, three-quarters are of color, 20 percent are English language
learners and 27 percent have special needs. MCAS
scores are below the state average.
The school also houses a large Sheltered English
Immersion program that draws students from across
the district. Although this program no doubt affects
the school’s MCAS scores, Mazza urged the district to
provide T passes to middle-schoolers who no longer
qualify for busing so that they can remain at Winter
Hill, where they have made significant progress.
In the end, the teachers agreed the Innovation
School process is not just about raising test scores,
“Somerville has always been innovative, but the
innovation has not always been teacher-owned,” she
said. “When this process is done right, it is teacher-
owned. Teachers have a voice in every step of the
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‘When this process is done right, it is teacher-owned,’ union leader says