Learning Life From Down In The Dirt

Windward public schools dig vegetables in a big way, at the same time their students grow in knowledge and pride from cultivating their own campus crops.

Kapunahala Elementary third-graders, for example, began their “greening” only last September with the help and enthusiasm of teacher Stephanie Mew and a whole village of partners – Kaneohe community garden veteran Tany Hood, Master Gardener Stuart Ball, Kokua Hawaii Foundation ($1,000 and a KHF curriculum), Hawaii Earth Products (soil) and Coastal Construction (garden bed).

“I personally didn’t know anything about gardening,” Mew admitted. “But we saw this space full of weeds that used to be a garden and got the parents to a weeding party. We tilled all the soil without weed killer, just muscle.” Soon the keiki were astounded by giant sunflowers, grown from seeds they planted themselves. And Mew said “They were picking the spinach right off the fence and eating it!”

Vandals and two wicked winter storms set them back a bit, she said, but not for long. Soon the fenced plot was thriving again, and an afterschool garden club was formed. The kale harvest went into making green smoothies, the lettuce became wraps for Chinese New Year, and basil became a treasure trove for pasta dishes.

“It has become their new playground and peaceful place,” Mew said. Not to mention the freedom of being outdoors and getting dirty without being scolded for it. Mew’s next plan is to build a science curriculum around the Kapunahala Ohana Garden, incorporating more art and language lessons. “The more we can be outside, the better!” she declared. Mew now awaits the spring harvest, as well as the response to her latest grant request to proceed.

At Kahaluu Elementary, community partners were key to restoring class gardens in November. Four Lions clubs, KEY Project staff, Punahou teens, Mormon missionaries and the school ohana showed up to help. They also designed and installed a special peace garden, dedicating it Dec. 13 to the families of Sandy Hook Elementary School. That effort affirmed a special bond the students formed with Scarlett Lewis, a Sandy Hook parent who visited the campus in November and shared with the children what she’s learned from the horrendous 2012 shooting that took the life of her son, Jesse, in Newtown, Conn.

Aikahi Elementary School has been gardening and teaching nutrition lessons for a decade. The school kicked off this year’s program with a fall garden party that prepared the planting beds and also honored Navy Squadron VP-4 for all of its help. Following Kokua Hawaii Foundation’s ‘Aina in School lessons, all Aikahi grades tend their own plots on their own themes – butterflies, science, vermiculture, Hawaiian plants, etc. The school also won a recent $5,000 Cooke Foundation grant for campus beautification.

Kaelepulu Elementary renovated its Ladybug Learning Garden in the courtyard in November, transforming it into peaceful, educational hubs for teachers to use. What began as “fledgling planting beds” by determined teachers and parents is evolving into much more. Plans also include an outside peace garden, an irrigation system and a fruit orchard on the hilltop next to its vegetable garden.

“This is the time to strengthen the loving community that is Kaelepulu,” stated teachers Kristen Ruble and Nicolle Grimes while rallying volunteers, “and create something truly beautiful for everyone to enjoy.” The school’s main partner is Permablitz Hawaii, which calls itself “a grassroots movement restoring Hawaii’s food security, one backyard at a time.”

Through efforts of its school community council, parents, staff and plant experts, Enchanted Lake Elementary students have begun to cultivate garden boxes and recently launched ambitious projects in aquaponics and hydroponics. Also catching the Windward garden bug are Kainalu, Ahuimanu, Laie, Kahuku and Sunset Beach elementary schools – all part of Kokua Hawaii’s ‘Aina in School family. Wanting to support the trend, the Master Gardeners Program at UH Manoa has added intensive weekend courses in School Garden Basics, with help from KHF.

Watch your step, because something good may be sprouting at a school near you.