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Growing Achievement in a Science Garden

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    Sarah Norris

In honor of spring, we spotlight a school garden that was years in the making at Grass Valley Charter School, an EL Education Credentialed School in Grass Valley, California.

A half-acre is a big space, but not that big; it’s about 1/10 an average New York City block. But on the campus of Grass Valley Charter School (GVCS)  a half-acre Science Garden contains the raw materials for a fertile array of learning opportunities, far beyond what most of us imagine when we hear “garden.”

This extraordinary garden--envisioned by teachers, funded by grants and supplemented by donations from friends, including an EL Education Klingenstein Teacher Award honoree-- features garden beds, an orchard, a 16’ x 24’ greenhouse, row crops, a shade structure soon to include a solar array, a garden tasting kitchen, a stream/erosion table, a geology wall, tree stump seating for an entire crew, and a pond stocked with fish, frogs, water bugs, and plants.

GVCS’ garden is an example of gardens across the EL Education network that are providing opportunities for students to experience the three dimensions of achievement and help their communities with the fruits (and vegetables!) of their labor.  Here’s just a sampling:

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Developing Meaningful Mastery: “It shows students not only that they have the curricular knowledge of how to do something – they can actually accomplish it themselves.”

The garden supports student mastery of knowledge and skills in myriad ways: students place rocks in strategic areas on the erosion table to adjust for flood waters when engineering the right place to build structures, young artists observe frogs and fish in a natural habitat when making detailed accurate drawings, students use their knowledge of chemistry in adding correct soil amendments to support proper plant growth, and after studying indigenous peoples way of life, students work together to construct an actual size Tipi trellising system to grow tomatoes.

“It shows students not only that they have the curricular knowledge of how to do something – they can actually accomplish it themselves.  In this way the Science Garden inspires students to not just dream or imagine, but also to do,” says Crosbie Walsh.

Walsh works closely with teachers to ensure the Science Garden lessons directly connect to grade-level standards. Lessons to support second grade students with life cycle standards featured the pond’s frogs and dragonflies. In third grade, heirloom plants in the garden enhanced student understanding of extinction and diversity grounded in standards on those concepts.  Fifth graders studying properties of matter and the periodic table used soil fertility as a platform for learning chemistry.

Students, as you’d expect, love learning this way. “The Science Garden at GVCS is an amazing way to learn outside in the fresh air while having fun at the same time,” says sixth grader Ibe.

Crew, Not Passengers: “We helped the pond by scooping algae out!” --  Logan, fifth grader

Just as important as their encounters with standards-based content in the garden, students learn how meaningful it can be to take care of a space, and contribute to their community.

Tearing out invasive species of plants, digging ditches for irrigation, assembling trellising systems, pulling algae from the pond, planting, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, cooking, digging (and double-digging) garden beds, creating compost piles: “These are tasks that involve not just an entire crew, but an entire school,” says Crosbie.  


“Students contribute to the upkeep and maintenance throughout the year.  They feel they use perseverance in accomplishing difficult tasks, responsibility in taking care of something that does not belong to them personally, integrity in making good choices working with tools, and respect in caring for the plants and for the living organisms in the pond.”

The garden functions as a connection to the larger community as well. Students have worked in cooperation with the California Native Plant Society to start native plant seedlings and restore local habitats around Nevada County. Produce from the Science Garden also stocks the Grass Valley “garden cart,” which operates on an a simple honor system: Take what you need, donate what you can.   Any proceeds from the cart go directly back into the garden program.  The school has also opened the Garden to schools in their district and county, because as Crosbie says, the school “understands the Science Garden as a resource is an achievement that should be shared with kids all through our surrounding community.”

Getting Started: “Teacher buy-in is a must…if this were an “administrator’s dream” and pushed onto the school, it would not work.”

The science garden started with a teacher-led vision for an outdoor, campus-based learning center that could supports standard, character traits, and EL Education school culture. They began with a part-time coordinator and a thoughtful strategic plan; even now with Walsh as full time “owner” of the space, the Science Garden Committee does a lot of the brainstorming, support, and guidance around making good use of the space.

What would YOU need to get a science garden or outdoor classroom started? Grass Valley leaders offer the following list:

  1. Start with teacher buy-in
  2. Form a committee of those poised for the task
  3. Develop a vision
  4. Share that vision with community partners and stakeholders to create more buy-in
  5. Create partnerships with local organizations
  6. Hire a coordinator/teacher for the space
  7. Utilize grant funding
  8. Make time to plan how grade levels will strategically use the space
  9. And of course, “Have a teacher at your school be recognized as a Klingenstein Award winner AND make sure she is so passionate about the Science Garden that she gives her entire $5000 check [from her Klingenstein Teacher Award] to help fund it!  (A HUGE thanks to Merry Byles Daly!)”
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While #9 is emphatically tongue-in-cheek, it underscores the role that serendipity can play in moving a project forward, as well as the huge importance of teachers’ love for the work.

“Teacher buy-in is a must,” notes Scott Maddock.  “If this were an ‘administrator’s dream’ and pushed onto the school, it would not work.  The idea of a Science Garden was born out of teachers having a passion for it at our school.”

What’s Next: “A living and growing concept...the garden grows as the vision for it expands.”

Further expansion of the Science Garden is always afoot. “The Science Garden is a living and growing concept – meaning that it possibly will never be completely finished,” says Crosbie Walsh. “The garden grows as the vision for it expands.”

One upcoming project is the addition of a solar array to an existing shade structure. Once it’s in place, students will be able to monitor the electricity generated by the panels and get first-hand experience in using this resource for power.  Also on deck are an enhanced geology wall using donated minerals and gems (including a “volcano” students will be able to erupt) and a scale-model of the local Yuba River watershed.

This spirit of continuous improvement is another key connection to the EL Education model, and one that our credentialed schools are deeply committed to. It’s clear the students and teachers at Grass Valley Charter school won’t rest on the laurels of the garden’s progress so far, and we look forward to keeping track of what fresh opportunities for learning arise on this remarkable half-acre.

Does your school have a community garden?  We’d love to hear about it!hwRNaiu9oELvAbf7JTyZCGjSRnvDvtHVhIaq13r7