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Kenilworth school becomes Chicago group’s first suburban school garden project

Sears School seventh graders take time to check on the outdoor classroom they helped grow by watering, digging up dandelions, weeding, planting, harvesting and composting. From left: Maureen Kelly, Leah Caywood, Kerry Fraleigh, and Stella Cook
School gardens aren't new to the North Shore, but Kenilworth's Joseph Sears School is the first suburban school to partner with Openlands Chicago to develop one. This council ring, where students meet with teachers to study subjects tied to elements of the garden, is part of the outdoor classroom project.
Sixth grade student Sam Nahrwold, left, and seventh graders Stella Cook, center, and Leah Caywood were active participants in the development of the school's outdoor classroom garden project.

A garden can be pretty as a picture, fruitful as an orchard, as fascinating as a science lab and ultimately as rewarding as a treasure map. Its dynamic – growing, changing, dying and growing again – makes a garden one of the world’s best classrooms.

So it’s no surprise that parents, teachers and students at Kenilworth’s Joseph Sears School not only love the outdoor classroom that got its start last year, but have enthusiastically participated in making it come alive.

The space behind Sears took initial shape in early 2012, but the desire to have an educationally relevant garden goes back further, parent Katie Nahrwold said Oct. 3: “I think people have wanted a garden for the school forever. It’s always been on our mind.”

Financial support began in 2011, when school supporters raised about $60,000 at the school’s annual fundraiser. Next Narhwold, who is the school’s environmental awareness representative, started researching school gardens.

What she found convinced her that successful gardens must be team efforts. Without students’ enthusiastic participation and without teachers’ willingness to work a garden into their curriculum, outdoor classrooms like the one Sears supporters wanted don’t survive, she said.

An encounter in January, 2012, between one of Nahrwold’s Winnetka Garden Club friends and a speaker at the club, Openlands Chicago education director Jaime Zaplatosch, proved fertile for Sears.

Openlands, a Chicago-based conservancy group that works in northeastern Illinois, has a school gardens program, but until 2012 had worked solely in the city. When Nahrwold called her office, Zaplatosch was intrigued. She believed Openlands’ school gardening precepts – intense personal involvement, kids getting their hands dirty and teachers using garden-based lessons – would work equally well in suburban settings.

There are obvious differences between poor inner-city schools whose children rarely see green space, and children in more financially comfortable communities, Zaplatosch said. But there are surprising similarities.

Students on Chicago’s North Shore may grow up seeing green space and gardens around them – but if those gardens are cared for by landscapers, suburban youngsters may be as free from personal gardening experience as their inner-city counterparts.

So Sears became Openlands Chicago’s first suburban school garden project. Last fall, Zaplatosch and her team met with school educators who had already been working on the project, people like science teacher Lynne Hubert and fifth-grade teacher Chaidan Upp, who also advises the school’s Planet Panther Environmental Club.

They trained teachers, students, administrators and parents and brought in a gardening expert to show teachers how to build gardening into their classes, how to introduce special needs students to outdoor teaching, even how to best lay a garden.

“They reached out to us, knowing our success rates with school gardens, so we pushed them a little bit,” Zaplatosch said.

According to Openlands, 91 percent of projects planned through their process last longer than three years. National findings by the American Horticultural Society show that 60 percent of school gardens fail after the first two years of initial popularity fade into apathy, she said.

Planners brought Sears students into the process early, asking them to survey staff and students alike on what they wanted to see in the garden classroom. (Some of the answers: a ‘council ring’ where students could sit and study; raised herb and vegetable gardens; a landscaped garden with a small vineyard.)

Work officially started last April. The garden project was planned in stages, not only to keep it manageable but to allow planners and students to learn as they went forward about what worked, and what didn’t.

The outdoor classroom became intertwined in math, English and science curriculums as students planted, observed, tracked progress, wrote about it and connected the native plantings to Illinois’ natural history. It also became a social center for school life, Nahrwold said.

“We’ve had an open house for the community and Sears families there, an opportunity to sample foods made with things we grew in the garden,” she said. “We’ve had activities like parties and movie nights … one of the garden clubs in town came and visited.”

Garden supporters hope that the next stage will be to turn an ugly retaining wall to the south of the outdoor classroom space into an attractive piece of mosaic art that integrates with the garden. Nahrwold said.

“What’s happened already at Joseph Sears in such a short time has been pretty amazing,” Zaplatosch said.

Understandably, district officials and teachers are pleased with the project’s success so far. In a September press release shortly after its latest phase was unveiled, Superintendent Kelly Kalnich re-emphasized the garden’s academic and social importance to students.

“Studies show that allowing students to have hands-on learning experiences is critical for children to connect to the real world of nature, to not only authentically understand the science, but it also creates awareness for our children to become stewards of our planet,” she said.

There’s one other important purpose to Sears’ outdoor garden. It provides a place for students and adults to de-stress in the midst of living things. Sears seventh-grader Stella Cook, agreed. In the press release, she said, “This is a great place to have at school. We spend most of our time using electronic devices, so we need time outside to enrich ourselves in nature.”

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