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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Dallas Arboretum Brings Nature Inside Schools That Can't Afford Field Trips

Low-income schools have a tough time paying for field trips, and parents often don't have room in the budget for after-school activities. That's why the Dallas Arboretum is bringing the great outdoors inside some local schools.

Leafy greens in the classroom

Students at Edwin J.KiestElementary in East Dallas are tending to a 6-foot-tall hydroponic tower, bursting with flora. It’s a high-tech vertical garden that's lit from within. These green thumbs know what's growing, too: basil, spinach, lettuce, parsley and rainbow chard.

Seven weeks in, the seeds have more than taken root. Take it from 10-year-old Jesús Cruz.

"We have a tower, a plant tower. Our plants are turning out real great; one is actually already almost all done,” he said.

The tower is the centerpiece of a nine-week course led by the Dallas Arboretum. Once a week after school at Kiest and three other local elementary schools, there's a hands-on activity, discussion, games and a lesson. On this particular day, kids are refilling the hydroponic tower, measuring plant growth and learning about life cycles. Jesús said he's getting a lot out of it.

“I like it. It's educational and very inspiring,” he said.

A lot of students at Kiest have never been to the arboretum. And many of their parents struggle to pay for after-school activities. Principal Yazmin Cruz, no relation to Jesús, said the 50 spots for this program were gone in a snap.

“Our parents are constantly asking for enrichment opportunities on campus. And when we have those enrichment opportunities that are so educational and instructional, even after school, they jump in, really fast,” she said.

Credit Courtney Collins / KERA news
KERA news
Arboretum educator Barbara Parmley checks on the hydroponic tower at Kiest Elementary.

Picking up the tab

The arboretum pays for an educator to come to Kiest, pays for a teacher from the school to stay late and help out, and provides all the materials. This coming spring, the arboretum will also foot the bill for a field trip.

"It's an expense. We have to pay transportation. So we are very fortunate that with this program. Our scholars can go to the arboretum for free,” Cruz said. “We are going to have about 250 students going to the arboretum very soon.”

Perhaps most importantly, the kids are involved in a program that interests them and bulks up their science knowledge. Anne Luke is science enrichment manager at the Dallas Arboretum, and said that's why this program was created 12 years ago.

"It was a result of looking around and seeing that the local schools needed help with their science scores,” Luke said.

When this course wrapped up last year, more than 90 percent of students reported that what they learned helped them with their classwork. Luke said it's also a great way to engage kids with working parents who'd otherwise be on their own after school.

"The students love the program; they're excited about it. We love to see them getting excited about science and understanding those concepts. Then, they have somewhere to go,” she said. “They don't have to go home to an empty apartment or empty house."

Credit Courtney Collins / KERA News

Looking forward to the ‘harvest’

Instead, they’re learning the body parts of a bee, checking on their plants and preparing for that final day "harvest," when they'll get to sample their leafy greens in a class-made salad. Ten-year-old Shirley Gil still can't believe how quickly their hydroponic tower sprang to life.

"I think it was really fast! I didn't know it was going to grow that fast. I thought it would take a month to grow like that,” she said.

Now, she knows. And she's proud of the work her class has done. Let's just hope the pride carries over when she takes that first bite of rainbow chard.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.