Overstreet Elementary School students distribute soil in the school's herb and vegetable garden last year. Overstreet and Sudduth Elementary School have incorporated gardening into the students' coursework, and the Partnership School that will open in August is set to have garden spaces as well. Photo by: Courtesy photo/Niki Mulrooney
An overhead map of the Partnership School, a sixth-grade and seventh-grade campus that will also be a training lab for Mississippi State University education students, shows where the school gardens and the designated health and wellness classroom will be when the school opens in August. The gardens and classroom are funded by a $900,000 grant, the largest that Blue Cross Blue Shield has ever awarded a school district.
Photo by: Courtesy image/Devon Brenner
February 21, 2020 10:44:18 AM
The vegetables that Overstreet Elementary School students grow and harvest in their garden become part of their dinners, and they are always excited to tell their teachers about it the next day, science teacher Summer Buntin said.
"They'll get one or two okra and they'll (say), 'Oh my gosh, we cooked the okra last night,'" said Buntin, one of the teachers who oversees the garden.
Overstreet has had a garden for almost a year, and the current crop of fifth-graders will get even more hands-on gardening experience and nutrition education in the next two years at the Partnership School, the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District's new campus for sixth and seventh graders that will open in August on the Mississippi State University campus.
A $900,000 grant, the largest grant that Blue Cross Blue Shield has ever awarded to a public school district, will fund the addition of school gardens and mobile kitchens to the $30 million, 123,000-square-foot building currently under construction.
Sixth graders will have a classroom designated for Gardening and Overall Wellness (GrOW), where they will learn about nutrition, cooking, gardening and other healthy lifestyle choices. Seventh graders will have their own classroom "garden pod," an outdoor garden space that will be incorporated into their coursework across a variety of subjects, according to a Tuesday press release from SOCSD.
The school will have a greenhouse and hopefully some fitness classes, family cooking nights and even a farmers market, said Julie Kennedy, the principal of Armstrong Middle School and incoming principal of the Partnership School.
"With the hands-on experiences that these classes will provide, they'll be exposed to some things they might not have been exposed to, in hopes that when they get older, they will want to continue with a healthy lifestyle," Kennedy said.
The GrOW classroom and garden spaces will help SOCSD achieve its strategic goal of health and wellness, said Brandi Burton, the district's grants and innovative strategies specialist.
The existing gardens in the district already contribute to that goal by teaching children the difference between whole and processed foods, Sudduth first-grade teacher Isabel McLemore said. The Oktibbeha County Master Gardeners within the local MSU Extension Office teach weekly classes at Sudduth.
"Sometimes the kids think vegetables come from Kroger or Walmart, but when they see them grow, it gives them firsthand knowledge of where their food comes from," county Master Gardener coordinator Thomas Nyatta said.
The gardening experience gives students a new appreciation in addition to a new understanding of their food, said Niki Mulrooney, an art teacher who coordinates the Overstreet garden with Buntin. The students were amazed to see that it took more than a month for a broccoli plant to grow just one stalk, she said.
"They would just throw out their broccoli that they didn't eat (in the past), whereas now they're seeing how long it took to grow," Mulrooney said.
'It's not just the students that benefit'
The school will also serve as a training lab for MSU's College of Education, allowing MSU students to observe classroom teaching and university faculty to be a resource for SOCSD teachers and administrators.
The garden space can be used for a variety of instructional material, said Devon Brenner, special assistant to the vice president of education initiatives at MSU. Students can learn about the science behind plant growth and the water cycle and use the plants for measurements and other mathematical calculations, she said.
Buntin said she uses the garden in her science class to teach students about photosynthesis, and McLemore said the garden supplements the English curriculum by offering students the opportunity to read books about plant growth and write about their gardening experiences.
The GrOW classroom curriculum will be the only one of its kind in the state, Burton said. The district will hire a GrOW teacher in April or May that will work with an existing team of SOCSD teachers and MSU professors to write the curriculum, which will hopefully be replicable and affordable so other districts can follow SOCSD's example, Burton said.
"What we hope is that pre-service teachers will see it in action and take the ideas that they've learned about the power of school gardening and a focus on wellness and carry that to the schools where they go off to become teachers," Brenner said.
SOCSD Superintendent Eddie Peasant said the district will be looking for a teacher with a background in both agriculture and health and wellness to teach the GrOW class. He also said he hopes students will be inspired to pursue career paths in health and wellness.
The school will have a walking track and fitness equipment including bicycles for both teachers and students to use, Burton said. SOCSD will partner with MSU's John C. Longest Student Health Center to measure teachers' stress levels at the beginning of the school year and again later in the year to determine if the wellness initiatives have a positive impact on teachers, she said.
"We want to make sure that it's not just the students that benefit from these projects," Burton said. "We want it to go building-wide. We want the students and the teachers (to benefit) and we want community involvement as well."
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