How a school garden can transform a school community

Nancy Burke wanted to expose her students at Haverhill High School to the simple pleasures of gardening—the texture of dirt between your fingers, the pure fun of digging holes, the hope that builds when seeds are newly planted and the excitement that comes when seedlings begin to grow. 

“I wanted them to be able to get outside in a hands-on outdoor learning environment,” Nancy says. With a grant from an NEA program and help from students and others in the Haverhill, Mass. community, that’s exactly what she did.

Haverhill HS Learning Garden Harvest Event

Nancy’s been an instructional paraeducator at Haverhill High for 18 years, working in the multi-support and life skills programs with students who have disabilities. She received an $800 grant in 2013 from the Massachusetts Teacher Association and the NEA to build garden beds in an interior school courtyard.

The Farm to School Initiative got its start when NEA’s Education Support Professional Quality department decided to pilot a program that complemented First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, which includes community gardens. 542b2b7ef3d96-imageNEA partnered with the National Farm to School Network to make it happen.

The NEA program is aimed at addressing student obesity rates through student engagement in school gardens, and using their engagement to teach them about preparing healthy, nutritious dishes for themselves and others.

“Education Support Professionals are key to meeting students’ basic needs,” says Roxanne Dove, director of ESPQ. “In addition to food preparation, the relationships ESPs have with the students they care for can be so valuable in motivating students to lead healthy, active lives.”

The fully handicapped-accessible garden has wheelchair ramps and raised beds, and was built by student volunteers.

Not only is Nancy’s program still going strong at Haverhill; the school cafeteria is now using the garden’s tomatoes, peppers and other produce in meals.

This year—just in time for National Farm to School Month in October—all of Nancy’s students are going to the Topsfield Fair to see their produce on display, courtesy of Whitsons Culinary Group.

Nancy’s efforts have earned her recognition and lots of praise, including a 2015 Bammy award, presented by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences to recognize the extraordinary work of educators across all disciplines. She’s even in a how-to video on starting a school garden.

But for Nancy, the biggest thrill is bearing witness to how much her students learn from the garden. She’s dedicated to seeing accessible gardens sprout up (I couldn’t help myself) across the nation. The gardens have obvious benefits for students. But what’s more, they can bring together the entire school community.

“Teenagers now volunteer in our classroom and read, sing songs or help with lessons,” Nancy says. “It’s wonderful for my students to be with their peers and be accepted for who they are.”

One Response to “How a school garden can transform a school community”


    Like a team sport or mascot, gardening can offer a symbolic locus of school pride and spirit.


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