In summer of 2003, the local community and teaching staff at 24th Street Elementary School learned that the school was due to have its playground repaved using money from Proposition BB. Under this plan, the old asphalt was to be removed and new asphalt laid in the same footprint. The 24th Street School staff, led by 2nd grade teacher Linda Slater and principal Yongpyo Grace Yoon, approached neighbors and local businesses to see if they couldn't come up with more optimistic model for the future than asphalt and chain link on the verge of a freeway.
They found an eager community. They partnered with the 24th Street Block Club, district council members Martin Ludlow then Herb Wesson, the Neighborhood Council, the Los Angeles Police Department, the LAUSD police, the Hancock Park Garden Club, Pasadena Garden Club and Diggers garden club, the West Adams Heritage Assn. and LaBrea Bakery, Inc. In March 2005, 24th Street Block Club sought out Nancy Goslee Power to draw a prototype plan. She consulted the students, teachers, and community while working in concert with LAUSD facilities and the repaving program to produce a plan that met their collective needs.
What started as a repaving program was now a partnership between the community and the teachers to save a failing school. The park-starved community wanted a meeting space, sports facility, potentially a venue for a farmers' market. Teaching staff wanted outdoor classrooms to start innovative programs designed to tackle a hot list of urban challenges:
- Closing the achievement gap
- Promoting English language development
- Improving time-keeping and raising average daily attendance
- Involving parents and the community
- Fighting obesity and promoting physical fitness
- Buffering freeway pollution and fighting asthma
- Creating council circles for teaching and conflict resolution
The project couldn't accomplish everything at once, but it could lay the groundwork for the future. The time to do it was when the main yard was being bulldozed under the BB repaving program. Working with Principal Yoon, the 24th Street Complex Manager and LAUSD Facilities staff, Power created a plan that created spaces for: teaching gardens, game courts, track and field, reading circles, community picnic spaces, and a teaching kitchen.
Vision into Reality
Turning this dream into reality involved tackling a host of practical questions: how to create outdoor classrooms that would succeed where current methods are failing more than half the kids? How to maintain the outdoor classrooms needed for practical learning? How to pay for them? There was no borrowing the answers, so the team began experimenting.
Teachers decided that they needed a test plot. On March 31, 2005, the entire school had a "dig day" converting a grass patch in a courtyard into a trial teaching garden. It was opened with a community day attended by more than 2,000 children, parents, teachers and neighbors and catered by a dozen restaurants brought together by LaBrea Bakery. Windrose Farm donated hundreds of tomato seedlings.
Party over, work began. Kindergarten teacher Charity Burton, second grade teacher Linda Slater, third grade teacher Michelle Ereckson and fourth grade teacher Tedd Wakeman led the faculty to use the test garden to take science and math lessons outside to see if their children could learn by doing instead of memorization. Linda Slater began art projects. Michelle Ereckson began nutrition lessons, teaching her third-graders to cook their own healthful snacks.
The lessons were successful, but teachers needed help to run the garden, LAUSD Facilities needed help to build it and school custodians needed help to maintain it. So La Brea Bakery opened a stall in Santa Monica Farmers selling bread to fund the program. Teachers then began teaching civics and nutrition by organizing bi-monthly field trips to the market, where the children saw their art on display, how the garden was funded and met farmers who grew the same vegetables that they did. More than 1,100 children had their first trip to a farmers' market in the first year of the program, and for each class trip, five parents were drawn into the new programs at their school.
LaBrea Bakery also hired UC Berkeley-trained gardener Nick Tan of the Eagle Rock firm Urban Organics one day a week to help teachers lead the garden lessons. A local gardener, Sergio Fuentes, joined Tan as a teaching assistant and to oversee garden maintenance. Tan took the cooking lessons to neighborhood homes for lack of in-school cooking facilities.
Silverton came to give a succession of lessons, one day to plant wheat and make whole-wheat bread, where she showed the germ in the loaf; another visit for a celebratory cup-cake making day, when she said, "sugar is a spice, not an ingredient."
The Garden Classroom
Over the past 2 years, GSF has dramatically expanded its garden-based curriculum and nutrition programming. Beginning in 2008, GSF expanded its vision by launching larger interdisciplinary standards-based curricula in collaboration with LAUSD, allowing our outdoor classrooms and gardens to have the greatest possible impact in schools and the greater community.
Our impact continues to expand throughout Los Angeles through community events, partnerships and outreach. GSF is currently codifying its garden program piloted at 24th Street Elementary and making plans to work with other schools throughout LAUSD.