West Allis school uses gardens to teach students multiple subjects

Irving Elementary's 10 raised beds provide curricular tie-ins

Fourth-grader Jacob Purcell loads soil into a wheelbarrow as he fills garden boxes at Irving Elementary School on last week<137> Wednesday, May 8, 2013<137>.

Fourth-grader Jacob Purcell loads soil into a wheelbarrow as he fills garden boxes at Irving Elementary School on last week Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Photo By Dave Haberkorn

May 13, 2013

West Allis — Young hands shoveled rich compost into wooden garden boxes and smoothed and shaped it into comfy garden beds at Irving Elementary School, 10203 W. Grant St., last week.

Then they planted tiny seeds they will tuck into the beds after they sprout.

Soon, the tender human shoots will see tender green shoots of nourishing vegetables in the school's new outdoor garden laboratory.

Teachers will show the smaller children how plants can't live just anywhere, but need sunshine and water. Older children will marvel as leaves come out to be food factories for the plants.

Curricular tie-ins

The field for learning using the gardens is wide open, said teacher John Goulee, whose second- and third-graders were the only Irving students to have a garden last year. With the focus-inquiry approach the school uses, the garden can be the focus topic that is woven into reading and math, he said.

"There are a lot of curricular tie-ins we can do," he said.

He could use his garden to teach so many lessons that when Irving Principal Michael Weaver put out a call for how an 80- by 75-foot patch of grass could be put to better use, Goulee suggested gardens for everybody.

The idea took root, but it took a while to flower. First Goulee had to see if he could win a grant from the West Allis-West Milwaukee Educational Foundation. In the fullness of time, that grant came through, but more funding was needed.

Garden sponsorships

That's when colleague Cate Caspari, who teaches kindergarten, stepped in. She organized a project that raised more than $1,300 by "selling" sponsorships of a square foot of the garden for $3. Anybody who sponsors six squares ($18) will get their name on a plaque.

To build enthusiasm, Caspari created a mock garden with all 576 squares in it. When a square was sold, she fashioned one of the paper cutouts the children made of their hands into a flower and put that flower on the sold square.

Just as the pioneers steadily pulled rocks out of their fields to make it ready for the plow, Caspari steadily made flower after flower.

A fair amount of money was needed because the plan was to have 10 raised gardens so that vegetables could grow in clean, fertile soil. More than 400 children from kindergarten through fifth grade divided into teams will get to work in their gardens.

As the vegetables grow, Caspari said school officials hope produce can be given to school families. There will be summer school at Irving, so teachers and students will be able to attend to harvesting and garden care. If there is extra, the produce could be given to area food pantries, she said.

The Irving PTA will add the finishing touch by donating a fence for around the gardens.

Library in the garden

As an add-on, what is known as a Little Free Library will stand at the gardens, giving an opportunity for children to take a free book and replace it with one of their own.

The Little Free Library will encourage reading all summer, Caspari said.

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