"It's a pleasure thing," said Beth Larsen, explaining why 500 teachers from all parts of the 700 square miles that constitute the Los Angeles Unified School District had sacrificed last Saturday to assemble at 8 a.m. in an auditorium at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. The teachers were not only giving their own time, she said, but their own money--$25 each--to learn how to set up school gardens.
Teachers have come out in such numbers for the past four years. Their curiosity about school gardens is quickly making digging and planting the most popular new teaching tools in the state. There are already 200 school gardens in the 915 LAUSD schools and 3,000 in California's 8,761 public schools.
On the face of it, the teachers have support from their superiors. Los Angeles Board of Education member Genethia Hudley-Hayes has called gardening "one of the best programs in the LAUSD." State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin has said gardening can "be the most powerful learning tool going" because it can draw parents, teachers and children together to learn, and engender a sense of accomplishment. She is so enthusiastic about the program that she has made it a state goal to have a garden in every school.
But this level endorsement has not translated into dollars, or anything close to an official program. Gardening is not on the core curriculum. You can't test kids on how to improve soil, nurture a seedling or set up a market garden in a school funding drive. So to get the gardens going, teachers must take their own time, then seek out a variety of constantly changing grants.
This year, the money's coming from the nutrition quarter. Larsen works for something called "the Nutrition Network," a new name for the LAUSD school garden program, given because a nutrition grant from the USDA now outstrips the 1994 National Science Foundation grant that originally funded the program.
Originally, the Los Angeles gardens concentrated on science, botany and ecology. But the recent flush of federal food stamp money has brought a new mission statement. Now, a garden's main function is to teach kids the health virtues of eating fresh food by growing tasty samples in schoolyards.
It works, too, said Jennifer Rees, a coordinator from the UC system's garden outreach program, Common Ground. "When kids grow their own vegetables they get really excited about eating them. They'll eat things they would never dream of eating otherwise. They'll even eat rutabaga."
Hayes, who was the star speaker on Saturday, celebrates the nutrition angle. "To me the possibilities are limitless," she said. "If every school had a garden, and they sold the vegetables, we wouldn't need soda machines in the schools."
But she objects to the garden program being boxed in by the nutrition label for lack of more serious grant support from the school board and the state's department of education. "We talk about how wonderful it is, but we are not prepared to support it fiscally," she said. "This is not a peripheral program. It gets at the core mission of public education," which she maintains should include learning about "life skills."
Hayes argued that gardening is not only fun, it involves math to measure a plot, chemistry to judge soil acidity, botany to propagate seedings, history to understand the concept of "heirloom" tomatoes.
"When you think about life skills offered by a course in gardening," she said, "this is the most lifesaving life skill we can teach to 750,000 children."
Dozens of workshops followed her speech, including sessions on composting, landscaping with indigenous plants eaten by Native Americans and rehabilitating the reputation of eggplant with kids. But for many teachers, the goal in attending was what attracts most first-time gardeners. "I want to beautify the campus," said Beverly Glass, a school coordinator from Purche Avenue Elementary School in Gardena.
For others, the passion is wildlife and ecology. Boyle Heights Elementary School teacher Brandyn Scully led a workshop on how to teach bird-watching. On hand to support the teachers were dozens of exhibitors, from UC Davis, the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, the Los Angeles Zoo, Starbucks and Thomas Bros. Maps.
The situation is much the same up and down the state. In neighboring Ventura County, a collaboration between a charity called the Hansen Trust and the University of California trains 60 teachers a year to set up school gardens. Their work has made Ventura a leader in school gardens, where children from kindergarten through high school learn gardening. But program administrator Sheri Klittich said their program, too, is fighting for support from the system so it does not rely so heavily on the goodwill of teachers. "We're trying to see how we can strengthen this program on its own merits," she said.
In the meantime, the "big idea" in public education is down to the state's teachers. Here in Los Angeles, whether the teacher wants to use it to teach science, math or history, whether it's bird-watching or beautifying that catches a teacher's fancy, the garden will be done on their own time, and, on paper, it will all be an offshoot of nutrition.
For information about school gardens in Los Angeles Public Schools, contact Chris Braswell, LAUSD Nutrition Network, 6155 Bellaire Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91606. (818) 761-3967. For all districts, contact Deborah Tamannaie at A Garden in Every School, California Department of Education, 560 J Street, Suite 270, Sacramento, CA 95814. (916) 323-2473.
In Ventura County, contact the Hansen Trust, University of California, 14292 West Telegraph Road, Santa Paula, CA 93060. (805) 525-9293.