An outdoor classroom is about to bloom at Summit Academy Community School – Cincinnati thanks to $2,300 in grants, including $1,300 from the City of Cincinnati and $1,000 from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. The funding makes way for two 4- x 8-foot raised garden beds along the back side of the Sternblock Lane school. There, sprigs of fragrant thyme and rosemary will intermingle with tomato, squash and other plantings.

The overall goal of the urban gardens is to enhance middle school students’ gardening knowledge in hopes of leading them to positive nutritional and educational outcomes, says Community Resource Coordinator Khadine Kelley, MSW, LSW.

“We’re not trying to create farmers, but to increase our students’ awareness of their place in their communities, seeing that they can make a difference and reach set goals,” Kelly says. “Our students need the opportunity to learn pride and patience. Gardening is a process that requires involvement and our students being able to see the fruits of their labor is part of developing important life skills.”

Kelly says the hands-on learning component of gardening translates into an education strategy. Already, the school’s teachers are developing mathematics and science lessons around the garden and a weather tower for students to use to track weather paths is on the drawing board.

Small but mighty

Beyond academics, Kelly envisions the garden’s therapeutic possibilities. She imagines an added butterfly garden around which benches provide a spot for students to rewind and refresh. Up the road, Kelly would also like to develop a culinary arts program that engages families by inviting parents and grandparents to participate in cooking classes that promote good nutrition. For ingredients, families would use herbs and vegetables they harvest from the garden. Kelly says she hopes to encourage families to start their own home gardens as well, if even if they take the form of small potted plants on a windowsill.

With help from community partners including The Ohio State University Extension, the Civic Garden Center of Cincinnati, Hamilton County Park District and Pennsylvania State University Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory, which conducted soil testing for the gardens, Summit Academy Community School – Cincinnati’s garden classroom has already planted the seeds to success. Student involvement begins April 13, when seventh graders will assemble and plant one of the garden beds. Ellie Falk from the Civic Garden Center has offered to construct the other garden.

From the hypothetical 30,000-foot-view, the urban garden project promises to enrich educational experiences for the school’s students, more than half of whom learn differently than through conventional modes.

“Our school was created to help struggling students with disabilities achieve academically and thrive socially. Research has shown that gardening can positively affect children,” Kelly says. “Our outdoor classroom will be a great addition to our curriculum.”