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School gardens provide hands-on education

LAPLACE — Thanks to generous grants from United Way and donations from Shell Oil Company, Tractor Supply and Valero Refinery, the LSU AgCenter has been able to maintain meaningful hands-on educational programs with youth in the parish. While major events like 4-H Summer Camp have been shelved this year, the LSU AgCenter has been reaching kids through school gardens.

At the beginning of the school year’s resumption of in-person learning, the LSU AgCenter team got permission from St. John School Board and Emily C. Watkins’ (ECW) Principal Peri Eldridge to meet with kids outside, obeying masking and social distancing protocols.

Master Gardener volunteers Judy Hurry and Suzette Goodrow, along with Horticulture / County Agent André Brock have been meeting with kids weekly all school year. While there were skips and starts early on, the kids harvested cabbage, broccoli, carrots and other vegetables for on-the-spot raw consumption. It’s impressive what kids will eat when they’ve grown it themselves!

Second grade teachers Latoya Mason (who originally requested and helped start the gardens) and Melissa Hanrahan work with kids on ELA (English and language arts) and science / math, respectively. The gardens serve as outdoor classrooms and lend themselves to science and math readily. “How many broccoli plants, children? How many cabbages? How many all together?” Connecting the gardens to ELA took some thinking so Ms. Mason has them writing in “Plant Journals.” AgCenter volunteers noticed the improvement in writing skills over the school year, as well as descriptive pictures they draw of the gardens every week.

May harvests include strawberries and kale… which led to a recent smoothie party for the kids at ECW. Nutrition Agent Cynthia Clifton accompanied a visit to the school to talk about healthy eating and exercise. LSU AgCenter loaned a “blender bike” for kids to power their own smoothies. Besides what they’d picked from the gardens, students supplemented with mulberries from a tree overhanging school property.

Earlier this spring, Ascension of Our Lord (AOL) Elementary science teacher Samantha Kramer, along with Principal Toni Ruiz, requested gardens at their school. Horticulturist Brock met with teachers and students to help build the beds. Students practiced geometry and tool safety putting the beds together, developing a great deal of ownership in the project. The fifth through seventh grade students have been able to take an active part in planning and building alike and will leave a tangible legacy at their school for future classes to use.

While the AOL beds are still in their infancy, students have planted into them and are hoping to harvest before school lets out for summer. They raise many of the plants in their classroom, then transplant them into the beds. Like ECW, they are growing both vegetable plants and a pollinator garden filled with flowers for butterflies, hummingbirds, etc.

At all the school gardens, teachers and students have benefitted from the outdoor classrooms. They provide excellent venues for critical thinking in real world situations. They also provide a relaxing and fun experience in a time of stress. The students and the LSU AgCenter are grateful for the opportunities the generous funding has made available.

As of this writing, there is an open 4-H Agent position for St. John Parish. Please call 985-497-3261 for more information.