Tucson school gardening movement sprouts from Manzo Elementary School
Courtesy of Moses Thompson
Abby Stoica helps students harvest greens from Manzo Elementary School's garden. The UA Community and School Garden program is part of the UA's 100% Engagement Initiative.
In a room inside Manzo Elementary School that smells like fresh grapefruit and is filled with plants, art and school experiments, Blue Baldwin, the ecology program coordinator at Manzo, told of a time when her heart was touched.
“This student came to school,” Baldwin said. “She was not able to function, and the teacher had asked me if she could hang out with me, just to relax and get stuff done. I had admin stuff to do, but one of the University of Arizona interns had just gotten here when that happened, and I had spotted her. And I asked the student, ‘Hey, do you want to hang out with Erin?’”
The student was hesitant, but decided she wanted to go with the intern to help with the kindergarteners’ farm chores in the garden.
“And as they walked away, I saw Erin, the intern, just totally register and realize that the student was really upset and not feeling great,” Baldwin said. “And Erin just totally embraced her and honed in and was so sweet and gentle and nurturing and loving. God, I feel like crying. And then next time I saw the student, she was smiling and laughing again.”
That was just one touching moment of many at Manzo Elementary School.
“It’s not like that’s an anomaly. It was just this really pointed, sweet moment,” Baldwin said.
Manzo, from the outside, looks like a regular square building, but when you step inside the space, the classrooms surround a giant area of community gardens, rainwater-harvesting cisterns, greenhouses, composting systems, an aquaponics system and a chicken pen, which interns from the UA helped foster.
The interns come from the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program, which revolves around the Community and School Garden Workshop class. In the class, students take an hour and a half of class time at the university and then intern a couple hours a week at school garden sites. They learn about concepts of school gardening like food politics and permaculture and then take what they know and go intern at the networks of school gardens in Tucson.
The origins of the gardens at Manzo and CSGP all started with Moses Thompson in 2006, who was the Manzo school counselor.
“He did little by little, chipping away,” Baldwin said. She added he found rather than bringing a student in crisis inside an office and asking how they’re doing, it was more effective to get them working outside in the gardens, calming down and processing what was happening.
Thompson added insight into what helped him to come up with the idea for the Manzo gardens.
“As my counseling program, I started doing some gardening with kids and saw how great it was for everything,” Thompson said.
He saw that parents got more involved and kids were more excited to go to school.
“We started working with teachers to use the gardens and saw how powerful it can be as a teaching tool,” Thompson said.
Wesley Parks, a graduate student with a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and cognitive science and a previous intern for the CSGP at Manzo, said, “One of the best things that I took away from it was the relationships that you build with the kids.”
One kid in particular would always tell Parks about dreams he had.
“Kids, when you’re working with them in an ongoing manner in the internship class, they start to open up to you and you can extend beyond just the gardening and the science,” Parks said. “And so this kid was telling me about his dreams and kind of like his emotional state, and I ... just thought it was really powerful.”
Schools from all over Tucson participate in the CSGP. Garden coordinators and teachers meet at the Green Academy, a workshop for teachers to learn how to develop a thriving community garden at their schools. On Wednesday, Feb. 27, they met at Tucson High Magnet School to discuss how to create healthy soils.
“Green Academy is amazing because we can get people from all over to come out ...,” said Mark Reynolds, a special education teacher in the Tucson Unified School District who is on the advisory committee to teach at the Green Academy. “A bunch of teachers and administrators and people from the UA who are working on the same thing and can help is a good resource for all of us.”
At the workshop on Wednesday, they gave out plants grown by students with disabilities from Tucson High Magnet School.
“Take all the science out of it … if you can sprout a seed in the ground and you can have it grow and watch it and know that you did that, it’s pretty powerful,” Reynolds said. “And then you can do all kinds of lessons around it to have them do that higher-level thinking, critical thinking about what they’re doing and what it means to do that.”
One of the reasons that the Green Academy exists is a lot of school gardens don’t last very long.
“It’s like a teacher will get excited and starts it, but then the teacher leaves or changes schools, changes professions or gets burnt out, and then the gardens get abandoned,” Thompson said.
By focusing on trying to create a culture of school gardening within TUSD, “we’ve seen that it makes the school gardens more resilient and that the gardens start to have more support than just one person,” Thompson said.
“I’m kind of an accidental gardener,” Thompson said. “Doing a little bit at Manzo just kind of took off, and now I’m a really big believer in the magic of school gardens. I think they’re really powerful.”
Baldwin noted how the gardens positively affect the environment of the school overall.
“Subsequently the whole school has good vibes,” Baldwin said. “You really get the sense that the kids here are happy and they love coming to school. I really believe that, in large part, is because the natural environment is so beautiful and stimulating, and they’re involved with all of it. It’s not like anything is off limits to them. They plant the gardens, they harvest, they weed, they water, hangout in the greenhouse with the aquaponics.”
The Community and School Garden Workshop class is cross-listed with ten other courses and offers a varying amount of credits. For more information on the class, contact program manager Rachel Wehr at email@example.com.
Follow Alana Minkler on Twitter