Spencer Grubbs says she wants to be a surgeon someday, or maybe a lawyer. So what does that have to do with an Omni Montessori School project in which students raise chickens and grow vegetables?
The 44 students at the schools Land Lab farm campus for seventh- through ninth-graders are immersed daily in collaborative, hands-on activities that develop a wide variety of life and business skills. Its a great learning experience, said Spencer, an eighth-grader whos in her fourth year at Omni. I believe this teaches a lot more than learning from a book.
At the Land Lab a 13-acre property tucked into a rural residential area in Waxhaw students learn microeconomies in which they perform the various functions of a business, only on a smaller scale.
We have animals, market, aquaponics, wood products making things from trees that have fallen garden, canning and wool, said ninth-grader Andrew Pendergast, ticking off the businesses. All of the microeconomies that produce something, well get the products together and prepare them ... and sell them on Fridays at our market at our main campus on Blakeney Heath Road in Charlotte, where the first- through sixth-graders attend school. Then all of that money goes back into the Land Lab for things like expansion to our garden or animal care.
The microeconomies were the impetus for Omnis partnership with Friendship Gardens, a match that benefits all concerned.
Friendship Gardens started 3 1/2 years ago with a garden in an empty lot behind Friendship Trays, a nonprofit Meals on Wheels program that is Friendship Gardens parent organization. Our goals were to teach people gardening and to grow food that is donated to Friendship Trays, Friendship Gardens program director Henry Owen said.
Friendship Trays serves 750 meals every day, so we learned pretty quickly that if we wanted to have any sort of impact we were going to have to expand our growing capacity. The model we came up with was to start partnering with schools, churches, other nonprofits, the local prison really, any place that has a community of people who want to learn to garden and want it to have some service/learning component.
So then we started helping groups like that start gardens. We help them start the gardens teach them how to do it, provide a manual, provide seeds ongoing throughout the season and in return, they donate a portion of their harvest to Friendship Trays. ... School gardens work really well for us because we can invite students to Friendship Trays to give them a tour and show them what youre doing in your backyard at your school is a piece of this larger mission.
Eggs from Omni
Owen said that among the 32 partner gardens in the Friendship Gardens network, Omni is the only one that donates eggs as well as produce. Thats really cool. Ive got chickens in my backyard that are raised the same way as theyre doing at Omni, so I know the difference in the quality of eggs between what Friendship Trays can afford to buy and what they donate to us.
Nicole Burnette, the schools adolescent teacher and farm manager, said Omni has donated more than 50 pounds of eggs and vegetables from the organic garden since teaming with Friendship Gardens in May.
The alliance is such a mutually beneficial partnership, she said. We get to give our kids real-world experience. They, in turn, whatever seeds they get from greenhouses and nurseries that are donating to them, they share with all of their partner members.
This also gives us another opportunity for community outreach, which is a huge part of Montessori. ... They go into the kitchens, go into their gardens, help prepare food and hopefully do job-shadowing and help deliver.
Burnette roamed the campus overseeing student tasks, from satellite classrooms to garden and barn areas. The garden area was a consistent focus.
Fourteen-year-old Spencer walked over to the vegetable plot. We grow chard, garlic, corn, pepper, she said. It takes a lot of work and patience. Andrew pointed to an area with some blueberry bushes theyre trying to get started.
Students dont just plant in the garden. They execute all aspects of it.
As a writing assignment, sometimes well be tasked with coming up with a plan for our garden, said Andrew, a 14-year-old who mentioned medical research science as a possible future career. So well come up with, like, eight pages of what we think we should grow in winter so we can grow another eight pages of stuff in the fall.
Such a systematic, multi-disciplined approach not only develops a variety of marketable skills, it shows real-life cause-and-effect. We dont have kids sitting in class going, Why am I learning this? said Omni Head of School Grae Baker. This is really designed to be a microcosm of society.
Its not about farming. Its about engagement through community. ... Not only that, theyre really getting a hands-on feel for the interdependencies of man and nature; theyre growing their own food. Thats part of the business, the applied science.
Like any arrangement involving adolescents, challenges and occasional behavior issues come up even in the most tranquil setting. This isnt La-La Land, Baker said.
But this recent boost from the partnership adds to the Land Labs aura of peaceful commitment and purpose.
We have a huge amount of freedom here, Andrew said. But with that comes a lot of responsibility that I dont think a lot of people our age have. It works for us.