Garden Gift Grows Student Success

The Community and School Garden Program will extend to Sunnyside School District and to additional low-income schools in the Tucson Unified School District, thanks to a grant from the Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation.

The Community and School Garden Program (CSGP) matches UA student interns with Tucson schools and community organizations to support the installation, development, and maintenance of garden programs. Interns are also trained to assist with lesson plan development and instruction around food, gardening, and community development.

Sarah Brown Smallhouse—the president of Thomas R. Brown Foundations, which includes the Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation—saw the magic of the garden
program firsthand.

“When Sallie Marston [director of the CSGP] offered me a tour of Manzo Elementary School, the garden was so much more than I expected,” Smallhouse said. “What I expected was a very nice school garden maintained by the students and used as a tool to teach science, mostly biology. What I found was a transformed campus, with opportunities to learn around every corner, and students clamoring to be involved, and family and faculty creatively engaged to make the garden even more fully integrated into the school. After the tour, it was natural to wonder if additional schools could benefit from a gardening program.”

The CSGP engaged-learning course currently places around 100 students a year in 12 low-income TUSD schools and in additional community centers that are within 20 to 25 minutes of the UA. The program restricts its service area because the interns’ travel time is constrained by their course schedules, jobs, and frequent reliance on either public transportation or bicycles.

Even though Marston, who is a professor in the School of Geography and Development, wanted to keep the program from growing too unwieldy given the small number of staff members, she also wanted to help schools outside the geographic reach of the program that were requesting assistance.

The Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation stepped in to help and awarded the CSGP a grant to hire a community liaison to prepare teachers, teaching assistants, parents, and community members to maintain the gardens and implement a garden-based curriculum.

“My father, Thomas R. Brown, started Burr-Brown in our garage at home, and it grew to be a great company—way beyond the original expectations of my dad,” Smallhouse said. “We hope to give others tools to build their own dreams through our family foundation gifts. The gardens are teaching so much! We believe they will capture the natural interest of students and lead to a brighter future for them and our community as a whole.”

With additional support for two more years following a successful first year, Marston expects that 11 more low-income schools will be supported, including those from Sunnyside School District. During the 2015-2016 school year, 86 percent of the students in Sunnyside qualified to receive free or reduced-price meals.

The main job of the liaison will be to help train the teachers and volunteers on how to use the garden as a learning lab. The CSGP website includes curriculum—ranging from single lessons to science experiments carried out over a semester—that are consistent with state standards. The garden can be incorporated into a range of subjects, including science, math, English, and art.

“It’s not enough to make curriculum available, you also need to workshop that curriculum so that teachers feel comfortable using it,” said Marston.

Although Marston plans to implement a more comprehensive evaluation of the program this year, previous evaluations have revealed a few persistent findings. UA interns report increased confidence in translating their abstract classroom learning into practical skills. Kids who eat from their school gardens have more interest in eating fresh vegetables. Reduced stress among students working in the garden has also been reported. And while Marston is hesitant to make overreaching claims about the direct impact of the garden on grades, she’s received feedback from teachers that the garden is a positive force in the classroom.

“We did in-depth interviews with five teachers, and they all said the garden was really helpful for students when they take their state exams,” Marston said. “They take the skills they learn in the garden and apply them to other contexts to solve problems.” Marston is thankful to the Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation for funding the extension of the garden program.

“This pilot project will enable us to develop a model that we can export to schools that have asked us for help. We can empower other people to do what we are doing,” Marston said. “To be a bit trite, it is teaching others how to fish instead of fishing for them.”

Published Date: 

10/27/2016 - 9:32am