School gardens help grow students' knowledge

KK Haspel, a farmer in Southold who also

KK Haspel, a farmer in Southold who also oversees the school garden at Southold Elementary School, explains to Leif Wood and Kaia Rothman information about their newly grown crop. (May 16, 2013) (Credit: Randee Daddona)

After explaining the math behind their project to find the most efficient way to irrigate their Southold school's garden, a bunch of sixth graders reached a quick consensus on their favorite vegetable grown there.

Kale, of course.

"The kale chips are awesome," said Tyler Defrese, 12.

Buoyed by the local, organic and slow food movements -- and as a potential response to the increasing emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing -- schools on the East End are turning to gardens in greater numbers, school officials and advocates said Thursday.

At Southold Elementary School Thursday, Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the state Board of Regents, and local school officials toured the school garden and students' projects.

The garden, in its second year, has rows of lettuce, carrots, sugar snap peas, potatoes and other crops.

"This creates opportunities for learning," said Tilles, of Great Neck. "Kids don't learn by testing them all the time or teaching to the test."

He said programs such as school gardens are "working around" the trend toward increased high-stakes testing, which he decried as unnecessary for many Long Island schools that have been successful in the past.

Southold Union Free School District Superintendent David Gamberg said there's too much emphasis being placed on classroom testing. The garden is a chance to emphasize different kinds of hands-on learning, he said.

"Over-testing takes place," Gamberg said. He pointed to students playing music, kids working on spreadsheets of crop sales and the entomology of bugs that might be found in the garden. "Families, students and educators are concerned," with over-testing.

The Southold Elementary School garden is almost entirely paid for by donations and volunteers, he said. Whole Foods recently awarded a $2,000 grant to the school. And foundations on the East End are looking to promote farming among young people.

Annie Bliss, a volunteer with the Edible School Garden Group, a nonprofit that helps organize school gardens on Long Island, said the number of schools interested in the program is growing.

"This is how students learn -- when they're up and out of their chairs and working with their hands." She said the lessons, from healthy eating to where the food comes from, "are not inconsequential skills."

The current crop of school gardens is part of a "resurgence," she said. "They disappeared. Now they're back."

The group works with as many as 20 schools on eastern Long Island with gardens, as far east as Montauk and Orient and as far west as the William Floyd School District. She said they're also in discussions with schools in Smithtown.

As students in the cafeteria were served salad with lettuce from the school's garden, second-grader Gabby Bifulco, 7, was asked what she learned through the garden.

"It's a lot of work," she said.

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