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Students Advocate for Garden at Hilburn Academy in Raleigh

Hilburn Academy 6th grader Lukas Stanton works in the garden.

Science class in middle school is a whole lot more fun at Hilburn Academy in Raleigh than I remember from my own experience, and the school garden and outdoor classroom play a big role in that. I visited with students in Jennifer Browndorf’s sixth grade science class last week, and they had a number of options for how they would spend part of their class time, including researching why their carrots plants were still so small, planting bulbs, and developing an engineering plan for additional hydroponics tanks for growing lettuce.

“The garden gives us a break from worksheets and being in the classroom. It’s good to have your hands on something and feel like you’re making an impact with your hands,” said sixth grader Marcus Cuffee. Cuffee worked on investigating the hydroponics for the lettuce.

Fellow student Lukas Stanton enjoys building in the garden and watering. “When we tasted the food, it felt good to know that I had grown it,” he said. Recently the students had harvested lettuce and green onions and had made Chinese pancakes incorporating their harvest.

Starting the Garden

The Learning Garden features raised beds with structures for frost covers and a greenhouse. An Eagle Scout built several of the raised beds to support the school.

Browndorf, who was named Teacher of the Year and recently won an NC Ag in the Classroom grant, oversees four sixth grade science classes at Hilburn, and she has led the charge on the garden being built. “The idea to have a garden started last year with one of our sixth grade classes. We have a pretty significant unit on plant processes at this grade level, so I had introduced gardening a bit and suggested we should start a garden,” she said. “The students rolled with it and investigated what might grow and how we might set it up. They were developing a plan while they were learning,” she said.

Teams of students presented their ideas for the garden to the PTA, as well as Principal Katherine White, and asked for budget support. They were successful advocates, and the PTA included a $200 line item in its 2016-2017 budget for the garden.

With those funds and some donations of materials, Hilburn is now home to six raised beds and a small donated greenhouse. Plus they have materials to make five more beds as time allows, and the new $400 Ag in the Classroom grant will enable them to create a strawberry bed. There is also an outdoor classroom area with platforms for the students to sit on and shady areas. Browndorf said many of the teachers bring students out for lessons.

Hands-on Learning

Research shows that edible school gardens help to improve academic achievement. Browndorf said their garden is too new for her to have data like that but her observational data shows her that’s true. “The students are more engaged, and they develop more confidence, even in other areas—not just science. They are developing skills they can apply in math and other areas,” Browndorf said. “They certainly are excited about participating and owning the space, so it’s a great match for their social and emotional growth too. They need that autonomy to go out to the garden and do a job. The garden gibes them ownership, which translates to caring about the space and respecting it.”

Watering the plants is Bezawit Shimbir’s favorite garden job because she likes taking care of the plants.

Because Hilburn Academy is a WCPSS PreK-8 school, Browndorf’s students will soon be teaching students in the younger grades about the garden so they too can feel that ownership and experiential learning. She said her students will offer a tour and workshops for the other classes to come visit the garden this spring. “For example, first grade teachers might sign up for a sixth grade workshop on organisms in the garden, and our sixth graders will take them out to do a survey of different insects that might be in the garden,” she said. “So they are starting to work on those plans.”

Diego Tapia, one of Browndorf’s students, thinks the younger students will really like learning in the garden. “When we’re inside with testing and paperwork, we can get frustrated, but it’s just comfortable outside at the garden. I like giving information about specific things I’ve learned, like researching the plants we grow. I think they’re going to like it too,” he said.

Diego and several of his classmates talked about enjoying the responsibility of gardening at school. Bezawit Shimbir likes watering the plants the most; “I get to take care of the plants. I like that I’m responsible for them growing.” These young students know they have tasks to do and problems to solve. It’s great to see the multi-dimensional learning taking place at Hilburn’s garden!

Dig In Workshop

Educators and parents that want to learn about starting their own school gardens can register for AHA’s Dig In!, taking place Sat., March 4 in Raleigh. Dig In! features two workshops specifically for schools, plus resources and valuable networking. Complete details on the agenda and speakers are online here:


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