A spotlight on the Columbia Secondary School community garden
Along the bustling Amsterdam Avenue, surrounded by tall brick buildings, there lies a small haven of green. The sign colorfully decorated flags read, “Columbia Secondary School Community Garden”. The Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering a selective middle and high school in New York City, that opened in 2007 in partnership with Columbia University. CSS is located on 123rd street and serves students who live in upper Manhattan, above 96th street. Last year, students and teachers at CSS started a community garden on a small plot of land owned by the New York City Parks Department. After a year of work getting organized to launch the garden, it is currently flourishing, providing a home for basil, okra, eggplant, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, and squash. During the summer, students came to the garden three times a week. One student said, “I came every week this summer. It was really cool to watch the things that we planted as seeds grow into vegetables that we could eat.”
CSS has found many creative and effective ways to integrate the garden into their curriculum. For the past two years, during June-term, a month long, experiential hands on learning program, there has been a course of Food and Sustainability. During this intense, month-long course, students learn about the different ways that the food they eat affects the environment. Throughout the month, the garden was incorporated into various lessons and activities. As one of their projects, they created a magazine Fresh! Youth Voices on Food and Sustainability documenting their experiences.
During the regular school year, Meredith Hill has found a way to include the garden in many aspects of school life. Recently, the NYC Department of Education launched the Sustainability Initiative, an effort to encourage schools to become greener. As part of this initiative, they ask that schools appoint a sustainability coordinator and start a Green Team. As the sustainability coordinator of CSS, Hill runs a Green Team elective that meets twice a week for one hour. Hill’s goal is to train the Green Team to be leaders in sustainability and spread their knowledge and passion to the rest of the school. The Green Team has broken up into five different committees, each with a different focus for how to work towards a more sustainable school. All of the committees work in the garden once a week. Hill’s main goal for the Green Team is that the students take ownership over their projects. She noted that after the committees worked together to come up with a plan for their specific issue, one of the students came up to her and said, “So, now what?” Hill responded that they should implement their plan. “Oh,” the student answered. “I thought you were going to come and tell us to do it.” Hill explained that 7th graders aren’t used to being in charge of something. The Green Team gives students a chance to come up with meaningful projects and implement them on their own, an opportunity that middle school students rarely have.
One of the committees, the Garden to Café committee, is focusing on bringing the harvested vegetables from the CSS community garden to the cafeteria. In the first event, they harvested basil, eggplant, parsley, kale, tomatoes, and okra with over 20 students and parents. The cafeteria made pesto from the ingredients and handed out samples to the students during lunch. Hill noted that the Green Team was impressed by the response from the rest of the CSS students, especially from the high school students. The next Garden to Café event is scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, October 27. This week, students harvested eggplant, okra, and basil in the garden. Today after school, the Green Team will be working with the SchoolFood staff at CSS to prepare pesto paninis and pasta. The food prepared will be served on the cafeteria line. This project is exciting because it is entirely planned and implemented by students. The Green Team students will be an integral part of each step of the process of bringing garden food into the cafeteria, including harvesting the vegetables, preparing the food, and raising awareness in the broader school community about the garden.
As the garden continues to grow and become more established, hopefully other teachers will begin to incorporate it into their academic curriculum. Hill plans to include a gardening unit in her English language arts class in the spring. Other teachers have expressed interest in using the garden in their classes, but few have actually done so. A few weeks ago, a student remarked that there should be a gardened themed school. “And why not?” Hill said, “The garden teaches students to work well together and take initiative. I ask ‘Who wants to do the compost?’ and they all just go and do it.” The benefits of the garden to the CSS community stretch beyond simply teaching students about sustainability and the environment. The garden is teaching students how to be leaders in their community.