News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

School Gardens Sprouting Up In North Texas Nourish Kids' Education

Bill Zeeble
Students, teachers and volunteers are hard at work putting in the raised-bed gardens at Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Grand Prairie.

School gardens are sprouting up across North Texas. The newest may be at a Grand Prairie elementary school. Last week, students, faculty and corporate volunteers turned the campus courtyard into an educational garden in a single day.

OK, this part’s the no-brainer. School outside beats school inside. Jeanne McCarty says the goal of this garden is to grow successful students.

“We’re taking things that kids are learning mostly from textbooks and training teachers to teach those same concepts in an outdoor setting,” McCarty says.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Jeanne McCarty's the Executive Director of REAL school gardens, a non-profit organization committed to "growing successful students" through educational school gardens.

She runs REAL School Gardens, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit that was born in Fort Worth 11 years ago. Its schools are still mostly here in North Texas. She says it’s one thing to teach about plants outside. But with these gardens going into a limited space, there are also lessons about area and perimeters.

“So kids could look at one of these raised special beds and figure out how much organic fertilizer needs to go into the bed," McCarty said. "They have to figure out the volume of the bed.”

Deborah Easley, a fifth grade science teacher at Robert E. Lee Elementary, says it doesn’t stop there.

“They’re going to come out here and write,” Easley says. “They’re going to come out here and sit and listen, look at nature, write poetry; they’re going to write essays; they’re going to do math. They’re just going to learn different things in every content area. Outside learning is the best learning there is.”

Brittany Gaytan, who's 11, agrees.

“Because it’s just learning new things, it’s not just being stuck in class doing a whole bunch of work,” Brittany says. “It’s a chance to get fresh air. You have to love going outdoors and getting down and dirty.”

That’s what several hundred people are doing this morning under blue, sunny, 67- degree skies.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
One of several raised vegetable garden beds going into the courtyard of Robert E. Lee Elementary school.

Four irrigated raised-beds are going in near a spiral stone herb patch, a compost bin, monarch butterfly garden, weather station and bird bath. There are two shaded outdoor spots for classes. Principal Jacquelyn Murphy says research shows academic performance and attendance all rise with school gardens. Most of her students are Hispanic and African-American, from low-income families, many without gardens. Students might not know where some food comes from.

“This is a major deal for us,” Murphy says. “Our students are really needing the exposure of as many life experiences as possible. So this garden is actually going to help us develop critical thinking skills that our students need in an abstract setting.”

Credit Ginny Martin / KERA News
Robert E. Lee elementary's principal Jacquelyn Murphy takes a brief breather before starting work again on her school's garden in Grand Prairie.

Murphy says her teachers are energized, too.

“Teachers are actually rated on student engagement,” Murphy says. “Out here, if you were to come here and this is where your lesson is, you would exceed expectations because when you come out here students can’t help but be engaged because there’s so much going on.”

Before the sun set on Grand Prairie, the work was done, and a garden was born. Nancy St. Pierre, with Sabre, the North Texas travel software company, said for her 100 volunteers, this beat the alternative. 

“They would be behind a desk in a building, working away,” she said.

REAL school gardens will continue to help the Grand Prairie school and its teachers develop the garden and the education program for kids. The first crops going in are potatoes, onions, and herbs. Murphy, the principal, says she can’t wait to cook some up for the kids when they’re ready. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.