A local network of teachers and organizations that hopes to use schoolyard gardens as a way to reach students has grown dramatically during its first year and is looking to expand even more.
The Green Teacher Network is made up of teachers from public, private, charter and home schools around the region as well as community partners, such as area master gardeners, Friendship Gardens and the Catawba River District.
The network is meant to be a centralized resource for educators and schools with gardens to learn from experts and each other, according to organizers. Through schoolyard gardens, members hope to advance academics, environmental sustainability and student and community health.
Edna Chirico, managing partner for the Green Teacher Network and executive director of the Catawba River District, said the organization was formed last summer through a collaboration between the river district and Friendship Gardens, Mecklenburg Food Policy Council and Mecklenburg Health Department, with other supporting agencies.
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Individuals and organizations realized they could make a greater impact by working together and providing an easily accessible, streamlined resource for busy teachers, and the network was formed, Chirico said.
The group held its most recent professional development and networking session in August at Metrolina Greenhouses, the fifth workshop the Green Teacher Network has held since it started.
With an emphasis on schoolyard gardening, the half-day conference included a tour of the local facility, which grows more than 90 million plants per year, as well as small group breakout sessions with community partners such as Friendship Gardens and UNC Charlotte for STEM Education.
Attendance at these quarterly workshops has grown over the past year from about 25 attendees to nearly 100 teachers and casual educators, Chirico said.
Elementary through high school-aged students at 115 area schools participate in the network and have schoolyard gardens. Roughly 80 are Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – others are in surrounding counties – as well as local private and charter schools.
In Lake Norman, Bailey Middle in Cornelius, Blythe Elementary in Huntersville and multiple schools in Davidson are among those participating in the network, according to the group’s online directory.
In Gaston County, Catawba Heights Elementary School in Mt. Holly; Belmont Central Elementary and Stuart W. Cramer High in Belmont; and Forestview High in Gastonia are just a few of the schools participating in the network.
In South Charlotte, Beverly Woods and Rama Road elementary schools; Crestdale and Randolph middle schools and Myers Park High are just a few network participants, according to the group’s online directory. In Union County, Antioch Elementary School also participates.
In Charlotte, schools participating in the network include Albemarle Road Middle, Albemarle Road Elementary Academy of World Studies, Bain Elementary, Allenbrook Elementary, Ashley Park Elementary, Barringer Academic Center, Behailu Academy and Briarwood Elementary.
In the University City area, University Meadows Elementary, Mallard Creek High and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle are just a few of the schools participating in the network, according to the group’s online directory.
In Cabarrus County, Carl A. Furr Elementary also participates.
Berewick Elementary, Berryhill School and York County’s Fort Mill Middle are just a few of the area schools participating in the network, according to group’s online directory.
The network has more than 25 local, regional and national organizations and resource partners, Chirico said, and the number continues to grow.
“If you’re a teacher, you have no time to find out what the other 25 organizations can do for you,” she said, adding the network consolidates finding area resources.
And network members are working with Microsoft and UNC Charlotte to create a “web-based matrix” that will give ideas and resources on how schoolyard gardens can be used to meet curriculum recommendations for every subject in each grade level, Chirico said.
Over the course of the next year, the organization hopes to expands its audience to more than 1,000 recipients through communications such as email, as well as continue the quarterly workshops. The group’s leaders also hope to get several certification programs in place for school yard gardens and sustainability.
Chirico said the network “is happy to be an incubator” for other counties in the region that want to learn more or get involved.
For some students, schoolyard gardens could be the only chance they have to learn about nutritious food and the greater health benefits, Chirico said. And by having classroom tastings of produce that they’ve grown, students can begin to experience fresh foods they may not otherwise try.
“The most cost-effective meal is from the dollar menu (at a fast-food restaurant), and the kids will be full .... But there are long-term disadvantages,” she said.
Mary Tarrant, a teacher from East Mecklenburg High, said the school started growing vegetables in raised beds last year. In addition to selling some of the produce they had raised, students also had a “salad party” to try some of the foods they grew.
“Most had never had anything but iceberg (lettuce). We had the good, healthy greens topped with fruit,” Tarrant said. “Now the kids want to (grow their own) at home.”
Robin Armstrong, the school garden coordinator for the Gaston County Extension Office, said the recent workshop was the first network event she’s attended since joining the local extension in April. Not only did she connect with area teachers, but she also learned about several book and grant resources that were new to her, Armstrong said.
The extension’s school garden program will be in nine Gaston County schools this fall, serving about 24 third-grade classes and roughly 600 students, she said. “There are many cross-curriculum ways to use (school gardens),” she said, in addition to students learning where their food comes from and what it takes to raise their own.
Armstrong said she plans to participate in upcoming quarterly workshops, “hopefully (to) build connections and build relationships.”