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Cultivating a Garden and a Healthy School

CLK ElementaryThe Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium and Keweeneaw (C-L-K) Elementary School in Houghton County, Michigan, is committed to “educating all students to become life-long learners.” They do this through incorporating multiple learning styles and recognizing that the places children learn extend beyond just the four walls of the classroom. They also strive to be a healthy school, and the classes teach kids to appreciate the importance of healthy eating and physical activity in non-traditional ways, integrating innovative learning activities into the curriculum and making it part of the school’s culture. What started five years ago as a few passionate teachers interested in reducing paper waste has snowballed into something much bigger.

A Garden with Purpose
Many of the goals of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) initiative in Houghton County focus on increasing access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity for children and families. This poses unique challenges in Houghton County, a rural, expansive geographic area (more than 1,000 square miles) with long winters in the Upper Peninsula. C-L-K Elementary School is the largest elementary school in the school district with about 700 students. Approximately 71.1 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch, and with a motivated faculty and staff, the school was a perfect partner for the HKHC initiative. As Ray Sharp, the HKHC project director put it, “[HKHC] is involved, but it’s coming from within the school. They are integrating gardening into nutrition and healthy habits.”

The Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative (LSSI) approached the school around the same time the school formed a committee to address the issue of paper waste. The LSSI purpose is to engage students in learning about the Lake Superior watershed and learn more about environmental stewardship. Melissa Schneiderhan, a fourth grade teacher at C-L-K Elementary, led those original efforts at the school, and is still active in sustaining the work. “I kind of had my arm twisted,” she jokes, “and in turn, twisted a few other arms and put together a team.” The school’s initial LSSI application included a school garden. “[Garden beds] can be done on a small scale, accessible to children and a lot of kids can be involved at once,” Melissa continues, “we started small…and now we have about 30 raised beds and some in the ground.” The school is focused on outdoor learning, and having opportunities for a variety of experiences on the school grounds just makes sense. Sure, the students are getting exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables, which in turn can easily bridge to a lesson on healthy eating, but that’s not the only way the teachers are using the garden. The foundation of the school’s goals include innovatively teaching the curriculum, developing stewards of Lake Superior and encouraging healthy food choices, physical activity, outdoor learning and community partnerships.

Initially, some of the teachers saw the garden as “extra,” and another addition to their already busy lesson plan they would try to fit in. But with the help of Melissa and others, many teachers are recognizing that it is an alternative way to engage their students. “We’re really just trying to show how quickly you can adapt a lesson from the indoors to the outdoors,” said Barb Kinnunen-Skidmore, a kindergarten teacher at C-L-K Elementary, “we’re working on making it as simple as possible to integrate it into the curriculum.” What is unique about the project is that each grade level has a representative which also promotes accountability. That person takes a leadership role within their grade level to model ways to integrate the garden and other outdoor learning activities into the curriculum. For example, when Barb’s lesson involves teaching measurement, she takes the students into the garden to measure the garden plots. “It goes beyond the science activities, and can include math, social studies, language arts…so the teachers have access to another resource,” said Melissa.

Moving Outside the Classroom
In many areas, school funding has been cut for physical activity and other non-academic subjects. What’s more, there are more performance measures that place added pressure on administrators and teachers to teach “by the book.” C-L-K Elementary sees the value in teaching to a variety of learning styles, and it is taking a different approach, both on and off school property. They have started taking students outside of the garden, off the playground and into the community. A child who may not be able to focus inside the classroom for five minutes can pay attention for an hour long lesson outside, even if the content is comparable. The administration and teachers are validating the research that supports that children learn better by using all of their senses.

The momentum is not slowing down at the elementary school, and many more opportunities are still to come. Ray Sharp mentioned the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department is working with community partners and local farmers to develop farm-to-school programs for several school food programs. They also work with four Houghton County school districts on Safe Routes to School planning and are helping those schools strengthen participation in school wellness committees to assess nutrition and health policies and programs. And the health department secured state funding for the C-L-K garden’s new greenhouse, built in June, allowing the students to grow more produce longer. And in the near future, there is potential to sell some produce grown on the school grounds at the farmers’ market. Melissa said, “We can do so much more, and we’ve developed so many more partnerships because we’re starting to move outside of school,” since they are visiting businesses and connecting with other sectors of the community. Melissa went on, “it’s not a field trip and it’s not even questioned. You may be outdoors for a few hours of the day.”

Just the Beginning
The Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative focuses on changing policy and the built environment to create healthier communities for children, and C-L-K Elementary School is doing just that. While not every project has the same approach, the outcomes are similar. The school is directly impacting many children in Houghton County by teaching them where food comes from, getting away from the mostly sedentary classroom model and encouraging outdoor activities that involve the greater community. Barb said it best when referring to the garden, “It’s just the beginning. There’s so much more potential…beyond what it obviously is.”

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September, 2012