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Member Kudos: SACE Cares Community Garden, Southgate Community Schools

2015 Education Excellence Award Recipient

DashBoard, Oct. 21, 2015

The 20 recipients of the 2015 MASB/SET SEG Foundation Education Excellence Awards are some of the greatest examples of unique and innovative public school programs in the state of Michigan. Over the next few months, MASB will share the details of each program from their applications, presented in alphabetical order by district. This week we highlight SACE Cares Community Garden at Asher School in Southgate Community Schools.

Description: The SACE Cares Community Garden exposes alternative high school students to many concepts that are typically unfamiliar to them. They learn firsthand where food comes from by following the food cycle of planting, tending and harvesting fresh produce. They also learn about the water cycle, weather and its effects on gardening, natural versus chemical fertilizers, composting and making nutritious food choices.

Three years ago, the students helped plan and build the garden in a field adjacent to our school. Two years ago, they installed an underground sprinkler system and more than doubled the number of raised beds. Every spring, a new crew of students work on the garden, so this project impacts different students each spring. The fresh fruits and vegetables they harvest are donated to struggling families served by the SACE Cares Food Bank, also run by Asher alternative ed students. Our students, quite literally, get to see the impact their hard work has on people within the local community. This has become a much-needed source of pride for kids who too often have few reasons to feel good about themselves.

Funding/Resources: The Southgate Board of Education provided a field adjacent to our school as a site for the garden. The Wyandotte Hospital Leadership Group sent an army of volunteers to do the initial tilling, and area businesses donated a shed, fencing and garden tools. The city of Southgate donates mulch every spring, and various donors (organizations, clubs, individuals, businesses) sponsor a bed to raise money for the seeds and plants each year. A local resident gave us the irrigation system and another one donated a rototiller. Nearby greenhouses and garden centers have helped us select the best plants for our needs, and community gardeners bring us their surplus seeds and plants. We run the garden solely with volunteers and on a shoestring budget, but we always seem to have what we need.

Outreach: The SACE Cares Community Garden is a project that has a positive impact on each of the Four C’s mentioned in this application. Our student body is made up of primarily young people who failed in traditional high school and have come to Asher for a second chance to get a diploma, and we also have adults of all ages who have returned to school after working or raising a family. Our population is made up of every race, culture and ethnicity. This diverse group of students works together on the garden. What is more, they have to interact with community members, local businesses and the struggling families we serve. The success of the garden requires that these students have good communication skills, both written and oral, in order to enjoy the work and experience positive interactions.

In terms of creativity, the kids have had to design the layout of the beds, come up with the most effective means of growing some of the produce and solve whatever problems arise with our limited funds. Through trial and error, we now grow pole beans on PVC piping fastened together with cable ties (which results in tents of living green bean plants), we have vertical fencing in the center of the beds to support heavy vining plants like squash and zucchini, and we have tall hills of dirt in the potato beds to cover the plants as they sprout. We have some classrooms that grow our plants from seeds, and we built cold frame boxes that protect the seedlings until it is safe to plant them directly in the beds. The students came up with these solutions, and the constant challenges that crop up keep the creativity flowing throughout the growing season.

Without using critical thinking skills, the garden would never have gotten off the ground. Once the field was given to us, we had to determine the best placement for it. The students had to take into account the amount of sunlight and shade in various parts of the field and they had to think about the nearby trees as shelter from the wind. We had to discourage the bunnies and squirrels that tried to raid the beds, decide where each fruit or vegetable would grow best and which plants would make the best neighbors. They used critical thinking skills to determine how much mulch and dirt to order, how many of each plant would fit in each bed, and how and when to harvest each one—no small tasks for our population of city kids.

For the last three years, all of the students involved in the community garden have had to practice good collaboration skills and, in a few cases, they had to learn these skills from the ground up. Each year, we have a few veterans who work with the novices to get the project up and running, so there is a constant training program taking place. In order to work together and actually succeed at the necessary tasks, our diverse group must make concessions, hear other people’s points of view and compromise for the greater good. For some of these students, this is the most challenging task of all. The students learn to respect each other, although most do not move in the same social circles and have no prior relationships. This is collaboration at its best.

Results: The benefits of the SACE Cares Community Garden are difficult to represent in terms of graphs, charts or hard data because they are not quantitative but qualitative in nature. What we do know is that this program has kept students from dropping out, enabled others to receive community service credit and graduate, and still others to fulfill their personal behavior plans through working in the garden. We have seen disenfranchised students develop a sense of ownership and blossom as their self esteem grew; in addition, this program has fostered a sense of community at Asher and built bridges among such diverse groups as students, business partners, community members and struggling families. Although the community garden abuts a busy city park, we have never had one incident of vandalism. In fact, curious strangers visiting the park have become loyal garden sponsors.

One of the greatest benefits from this program is the noticeable change in our school’s image within the community. Because Asher School is an alternative education center, there is often a negative perception of our students’ educational abilities and social characteristics. Through the school-city-business partnerships the garden has fostered, this image is changing. From local neighbors to City Hall and beyond, people are taking another look at our students and realizing that they are not the "losers" people often expect to find. This change in attitude recently led to a city-school beautification grant, which has, in turn, improved the physical atmosphere of the school and positively impacted our students. If for no other reason than the shift in public perception toward alternative education students in general and Asher students specifically, this program has been worth every bit of hard work expended on this program, with or without EdEx recognition.

Additional Information: The community garden was a logical next step for SACE Cares, which began more than 20 years ago with the establishment of a food bank to help struggling families within our area. Later, we added an Angel Tree program to provide Christmas gifts. Three years ago, we realized that folks who could not afford macaroni and cheese were certainly unable to provide their families with fresh fruits and vegetables. This led to the establishment of the community garden, which has grown in size and scope every year. This coming summer, some of our most academically challenged students will learn real world skills by working in our garden. It has been amazing to see how the program continues to evolve as it impacts even more students.

Student volunteers run SACE Cares; no one gets a salary, and we operate on donations from businesses, organizations, generous district employees and many individuals. Students who have failed in a traditional school setting and come to Asher School for a second chance at an education are the backbone of SACE Cares, as they are the ones who put forth all of the effort. Some of our students have received assistance from these programs in the past and are eager to give back; but others comment that they have gained as much from helping out as have those we assist.

I would like to leave you with an anecdote from our very first day of planting, when we had assembled a small group of students to build our berry patch. We were planting raspberry and blueberry bushes as well as strawberry plants. One of the students dug the holes, another was charged with following behind and planting the bushes, and the last was to finish by watering each plant. We soon discovered that the “planter” had put the bushes into the holes, but he had not taken them out of the plastic containers. We had to go back and replant everything! We realized then that working in the community garden would certainly broaden our kids’ horizons and provide them with new experiences. If other school districts set up programs like SACE Cares, their communities would benefit greatly, as would the educational opportunities of their students.

Program Coordinator: Terry Lauber, Coordinator, tnclauber@yahoo.com

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