Symonds School: Transforming Green Space into Diverse Habitats

Artist in residence worked with students to create this garden art.

Case Study 8

The Symonds School, located just off of Park Avenue in Keene, NH, exemplifies the culmination of dedicated parents, faculty, staff, and students working to beautify the landscape and provide hands-on educational opportunities for all.  A variety of garden beds surround the school grounds, located near entrances, fence lines and within the playground space.  Among these garden plots, diverse annuals and perennials, large sections of sunflowers, and vegetables are scattered throughout.

In addition to the plants growing in these gardens, there is beautiful artwork that creates a sense of belonging, both to the community members that invest time in maintaining the gardens, and to the folks that simply enjoy the area.  There are small huts built out of sticks with plants growing all around them where children play during recess, beautifully painted poles with wish flags flying in the wind, a hand-built patio, and shrubs with various bird species fluttering in and out of the branches.

These garden spaces not only provide great aesthetics to the school grounds; the benefits of this program unfurl for each student, every classroom, and then continue to extend to families, businesses and organizations throughout Cheshire County.

Project Beginnings

Four years ago, the playground area at Symonds Elementary consisted of dust, sand, and pavement.  Parents, faculty, and staff came together and decided that this area needed to be more useful, more  biologically diverse, and more conducive to learning.

Goals were established, grants were written, and the program began to take shape.  A garden committee was formed and art was integrated into the program. Year after year, more and more garden plots sprouted around the school building.

Up and Running

Individuals, families, or classes can ‘adopt’ a portion of the garden and do whatever they would like with it, while following organic growing principles and using native species whenever possible. Two master gardeners that work at Symonds help with some of the planting, advising, and maintenance of the garden beds.  An inspiring aspect of this program is that people not only maintain their garden spaces but purchase new items and really work to make these gardens dynamic.  The program has been funded by a Fish and Game grant, along with donations and fundraisers. The PTA played a crucial role in helping get this program off the ground.

Along with the donation of funds, local businesses have contributed materials such as hoses, tools and compost.  This program is zero cost to the district, which allows for a bit more flexibility.

“Our program is unique in that it is very community oriented and it feels like common space for people versus owned and regulated. There have not been issues with vandalism and it is not just science based,” said Susan Meehan, teacher at Symonds School.

Planning for the Future

The Garden Committee has combined with the Playground Committee to revise and develop goals including:

Artist designed structures that act as beautiful places to play at recess. They are a big hit!
  • grow more food in conjunction with the seasons
  • develop a summer program that can help maintain the gardens
  • coordinate with wellness education
  • create more spaces for children and animals throughout the playground

Advice for Other Schools/Projects

Folks involved with the Symonds school gardens advise other start-up groups to:

  • Look into garden clubs for plant donations and seek advice from master gardeners or your local extension service
  • Involve your PTA!
  • Community awareness about available garden space will help with maintenance and making the space available to more people.
  • Have a clean up and planting day to get people engaged and excited about your project.
  • The Fish and Game grant was a big help to the Symonds School, and having a focus other than just growing food has provided a lot of opportunities for classes, students, and families.

Stonewall Farm: Building Bridges

Case Study 7

Using bee puppets, children pretend to pollinate squash flowers in the garden.

Stonewall Farm in Keene, NH, is a nonprofit working farm and education center dedicated to connecting people to the land and to the role of local agriculture in their lives. Set in a scenic valley, Stonewall Farm consists of pastures, fields and woodlands.  As you walk around the farm, a geodesic dome greenhouse and two acres of gardens pop out of the landscape and invite you to take a closer look.

Amanda Hopkins serves as the garden manager  at Stonewall Farm, and acts as a bridge between the gardens and the Farm’s education programs.  Every year, Amanda works with Keene High School students, community volunteers, and children who come to the farm for summer camp and school programming. She dreams of working with more local schools starting in the spring of 2010.  This winter, she is working to create curriculum to bring the garden deeper into their educational programming and to nearby schools.  Amanda is “inspired by the garden and the proximity to Keene area schools who can use us as a resource…for all the schools who don’t have the opportunity to have a school garden and for those that do.”

Project Beginnings

Amanda started working at Stonewall Farm two years ago with the goal of expanding the existing Farm to Table program that already draws many school groups to Stonewall Farm.  Amanda’s goal is to create outreach partnerships to help schools with curriculum and linking farm and garden activities to state and district standards.  Part of this work involves meeting with teachers to identify their needs, gauging the age and ability of the students involved, figuring out their classroom and school grounds resources, and then determining how to incorporate the teachers’ interests, skills, and energy.

As more and more teachers and districts embrace place- and agricultural-based curriculums, it’s critical that there be resources available to help add fuel to their fire.  Amanda notes: “their days are already packed as it is, and I want to help.”

Up and Running

The knowledge and skills that will help to turn Amanda’s vision into reality came from myriad life experiences: a Master’s Degree in Environmental Education from Antioch University New England, an internship with Tracie Smith of Tracie’s Community Farm, working at the Youth Horticulture Project of Brattleboro, being a NOFA member and attending conferences, going to Small and Beginning Farms workshops, involvement with the Keene Farmers’ Market, and visiting a variety of farms and farmers.

To start up the garden program, funds will come from the garden’s produce sales at the on-site farmstand, Keene Farmers’ Market, and her new year-round CSA.  Once running, the garden programs will generate its own revenue.

A great support network at Stonewall Farm also makes the garden program possible, including Amanda’s new production and floral coordinator, Sarah Barkhouse.  Sarah will relieve Amanda from the coordination and oversight of daily garden tasks and allow her to focus on the development and execution of educational programming.  A pilot program with a second grade class in Marlborough this spring (2010) will provide the foundation from which the program can grow.

Another great opportunity for curriculum development has been the evolution of the C3, Cultivating Community Connections, Partnership with Keene High School’s (KHS) Career Center.  The original C3 program, funded by a SARE grant two seasons ago, was a partnership with the Horticulture, Culinary and Marketing departments at KHS. The program has since reduced its scope to working mostly with the Horticulture classes in planting and harvesting field crops, and less with the Culinary students’ on-site café.

Hurdles to Overcome

While the garden outreach program has great support from the staff at Stonewall Farm, there are still hurdles to overcome.  Dealing with the challenges of managing limited time, working under the constraints of the school day schedule, tight school budgets, and school transportation for groups are all issues to address.  Another barrier is the lack of access to information needed to move forward with some of the school programs.  Though Amanda is bridging the garden and education programs, she sees the need to strengthen this connection in the future.

“I would like students to understand that gardens produce food. Real, tangible, edible food and that you need to work hard in order to harvest the benefits from that garden, and when you do, not only is there a lot to learn from but, boy does it taste good too!”

Planning for the Future

The future has much in store for Amanda and her visions.  This winter, curriculum development and gaining teacher support are the first steps.  Along the way,  Amanda also recognizes the need to identify existing garden-based curricula and figure out how they match local curriculum in schools in order to fill gaps and eliminate repetition of resources.

Advice for Other Schools/Projects

For others who are interested in starting similar food and agriculture programming, Amanda Hopkins advises working on a farm or in a garden to gain experience and knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.  Perhaps you will experience some failures, but you will also learn to problem solve in the process.

Amanda also urges tapping into the resources right at your fingertips:

  • Go to the Keene Farmers’ Market and meet your local farmers and producers.
  • Stonewall Farm offers many education programs, farm tours, and workshops.
  • Many seed companies will donate seeds and catalogs.  Some examples of seed companies to contact are: Fedco, Johnny’s, Seeds of Change, and Seed Savers.
  • Cooperative Extension and 4-H offer lots of support.
  • Experienced farmers in the area can be great resources (as long as you approach them in the winter.)
Summer camp celebrates a good morning of weeding.

Early Sprouts Program: Focus on Young Children

My son went from being excited about dinosaurs to being excited about squash … we have eight varieties in our home right now. - Parent

Case Study 2

The Early Sprouts Program promotes learning among teachers, preschool-age children and their families using a “seed to table” approach.  Specifically, this program is a research-based nutrition and gardening curriculum that gives children experience in planting, harvesting and preparing their own food.  Holistically, however, it is a community-based model for creating positive change.

Dr. Karrie Kalich, a registered dietitian and an associate professor at Keene State College (KSC), is the Primary Investigator for the Early Sprouts program. She led the development of this 24-week preschool curriculum and helped write the book, Early Sprouts: Gardening and Nutrition Experiences for the Young Child, used in local child care centers such as the Keene State College Child Development Center (CDC) and five afterschool programs.

The Early Sprouts Program uses raised organic garden beds, sensory experiences, and cooking lessons focused on six target vegetables to:

  • Increase young children’s food preferences for and consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy products.
  • Promote school and family-based dietary changes.
  • Reduce the risks and issues associated with childhood overweight and obesity.

Project Beginnings

The seeds for Early Sprouts were nourished as Karrie worked at Linden Tree Farm & CSA during graduate school.  Her past connections and passion for local food and her interest in promoting behavior change contributed to the program’s development, as did collaborations with KSC students; faculty from the KSC nutrition and education departments; and the Head Start Centers of Southwestern Community Services.

Karrie’s vision came to life thanks to a Home Depot Youth Gardening Grant to build raised bed gardens at the KSC CDC.  Initial funding also came from the MacMillan Company in Keene.

In the Spring of 2006, the Early Sprouts program flourished into eight raised garden beds on the CDC’s playground.

Up and Running

Early Sprouts is now used in many preschools and spans the school year.  Training and support for classroom teachers and family outreach is a component of the program.

In the 2008-09 school year, six Head Start Centers in New Hampshire as well as the Children’s Learning Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, Lily Garden Learning Center and the University of New Hampshire Child Study and Development Center used the Early Sprouts program.

At the start of each week, a vegetable is explored using all the children’s senses. The students prepare a recipe together using the week’s vegetable and at the end of the week, take home a recipe kit to reinforce their learning with their family.

“We send home family recipe kits to extend the experience into the home.  The kits include all of the ingredients needed to prepare the recipe,” Kalich shared.

Families are kept engaged not only through the family recipe kits but with regular newsletter articles from Early Sprouts.  Families are also invited to join their children in planting the garden, participating in class activities, and attending special events such as the “stone soup” luncheon and the butternut squash pancake breakfast.

Initially, Karrie’s favorite part of the program was gardening with the kids. Now that joy has expanded to presenting with classroom teachers at regional, national and international conferences where they have the opportunity to share their Early Sprouts experience and educate their peers.

The Early Sprouts Program is now recognized nationwide as a model community program.  In 2008, the program received the Surgeon General’s “Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future” Champion Award. The Champion Award highlights prevention programs that form partnerships and help kids stay active, adopt healthy eating habits, and promote healthy choices.  In 2009, Kalich was presented with the “Mary Abbott Hess Award for an Innovative Food & Culinary Effort” from the American Dietetic Association.

Hurdles to Overcome

One of the unexpected challenges that Early Sprouts teachers met were school fire codes—cooking was not allowed in some of the classrooms.  For a curriculum that includes cooking in the classroom this is a major hurdle to work through before the program is implemented.

Planning for the Future

The Early Sprouts program is dynamic and continually evolves thanks to teacher feedback. It is expanding beyond the school day to after-school programs in Troy, Gilsum, Winchester, Hinsdale and Westminster, VT  to work with elementary school-aged children.  This is a partnership between Keene State College and the after-school programs and is implemented with current after-school funding.  AmeriCorps Health & Wellness VISTA Members are an integral part of this partnership.

To date, Early Sprouts has offered four trainings at local after-school programs.  After-school programs are proving to be an ideal fit for Early Sprouts—as after-school programs are looking for wellness-based best practice initiatives.  They also have the time to devote to this type of program.

Kalich is hoping to incorporate more cultural diversity into the curriculum and work more with UNH Cooperative Extension. Another important goal is finding a “real” gardener to join the Early Sprouts team.

Advice for Other Schools/Projects

Kalich shares: Have a plan with how to deal with division of roles, training, and maintaining the raised beds.

“It’s easier to teach a behavior than to change one …” — Dr. Susan Lynch Pediatrician and N.H.’s First Lady

Monadnock Buy Local Grows Regional Effort to Support Local and Independent Businesses

Monadnock citizens and local business owners are invited to help grow a grassroots movement in our region: Monadnock Buy Local (MBL).

A MBL Steering Committee is forming and current members are reaching out to towns beyond Keene to make this truly a regional effort.  For more information, contact MonadnockBuyLocal@gmail.com.

Monadnock Buy Local’s roots lie with the Keene Buy Local Initiative – a project of the Keene Downtown Group.   The Keene Buy Local Initiative launched a 10% Shift Challenge the week of July 1-7, 2009, to coincide with other nationwide celebrations of “Independents Week”.  For more information visit http://keenelocal.com.

The Keene Downtown Group is a non-profit membership organization whose mission is to insure the vibrancy and vitality of Downtown Keene: http://keenedowntown.com.