Me and my head… the Benson High School Garden – Part 1

I’m sometimes accused of living too much inside my head. This may not be entirely untrue, and sometimes this is actually a good thing. Occasionally ideas arise that are pretty darn good. One of those ideas surfaced last fall. It was really a confluence of several circumstances more so than an idea. For one thing, seeing the massive, west-facing, sun-baked front court yard of my son’s high school made me cringe. With its straw-colored, parched remnants of lawn it was anything but hospitable and welcoming. As my oldest had just enrolled as a freshman, I was also a little curious as to where the kids hang out. Our visits hadn’t exactly revealed any really great gathering spots – at least as far as I had seen. As part of the Start of the Year information packet, I had learned about a program offered by the school called the Teen Outreach Program – a program where at-risk kids take part in outreach activities that strengthen their confidence and self-worth. Last but not least, I also knew that a lot of kids (and adults) in our fair city go hungry. All this taken together made me think that this school was the perfect scenario for a school garden. Not to say that it should all  be edible – as a hopeless ornamentalist, I strongly feel that it needs to look presentable year-round. But, it is a massive space – should all this happen, there is ample room for both.

Here it is - in full Midsummer Dandelion glory. Did you know that Portland Public Schools employ but two groundskeepers during the summers - for the ENTIRE district!!! So if you think the grass is a little on the long side - now you know why. No, if this will ever be successful, it would depend mostly on the teachers, and the kids.

Here it is – in full Midsummer Dandelion glory. Did you know that Portland Public Schools employ but two groundskeepers during the summers – for the ENTIRE district!!! So if you think the grass is a little on the long side – now you know why. No, if this will ever be successful, it will depend mostly on the teachers, and the kids that inhabit it. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Normally, I’m not very excited about school gardens other than from the obvious, feel-good reasons that a) I think today’s kids need to spend more time outside and b) that I myself love to garden, and want to pass on that joyous, life-affirming skill to others. The reason I’m not completely sold on them is that school gardens are almost always a parent-driven project. Or, possibly the brain-child a real hung-ho teacher. Once the teacher retires or the parent volunteer burns out, the garden becomes this overgrown, weed-infested eye-sore, and mostly serve as a sad reminder of not enough time, not enough resources, and not enough help. Besides, the most intensive part of the garden growing season including its culmination- harvest time – happens during the summer months when nobody is there. So, you ask, what makes this one different? Well, quite a few things, actually.

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Benson Polytechnic High School is one of few remaining technical trade high schools left in the nation. (Can you believe it? That’s CRAZY!!!) In addition to the basics, kids here learn actual skills. Benson offers a fantastic Applied Math class, developed by two of the teachers. The kids apply what they learn in Tech Geometry to design and build projects. Construction, metal work, manufacturing, electrical wiring, photography and digital media, health sciences, automotive, etc., are also on the schedule. In the old days, before the disinvestment of public education, pre-cursors to these types of CTE (Career and Technical Education) classes might have been found in most any high school, but the sad truth is that most of that has been stripped away in favor of exclusive laser focus on only testable, basic subjects, accompanied by high-stakes testing. Not so at Benson – these kids graduate with some real, tangible skills. The school encourages creative thinking, and interested students have opportunities to take part in design competitions. Many of them later move on to satisfying careers in much in-demand trades, and many continue on to design schools and engineering programs. Had this been a normal school, I most likely would have dropped the idea of a garden right there and never looked back – but alas, it is not. A week or so after Thanksgiving, I emailed one of the Benson counselors, to see if there was any interest in something like this.  To my astonishment, I got a reply the very same day – a resounding YES! We set a time to meet after the Holidays.

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The first meeting revealed several interesting things I was not aware of, which only strengthened the potential, and enforced the validity of this idea. First; the school is open during summers, for summer classes. Which means that one of the largest hurdles toward success  (summer watering) is suddenly a much smaller problem. Second; Benson’s centennial is coming up in two years. A new garden could  be the perfect celebration for such an occasion! Third: All high school-age new immigrants who don’t speak English are associated with Benson via a program called PISA. A garden could be a great way for cultures to meet, vocabularies to develop, and footholds to be found for newcomers in a – to them – strange new world. This could also become the perfect setting for another idea that has been kicking around in my head for years, but not reached fruition yet. At my son’s elementary school, I thought a cook book representing all the different cultures present in the school could be assembled and sold for fundraising purposes. This idea truly lends itself even better to Benson than to most other schools, as Benson also has a Digital Media program. Fourth: the Dept. of Health Sciences run a Cooking Club which also does a fair amount of catering. Whatever is grown could be used by them in their catered events. And so on… There seems to be a little bit for everyone in this project!

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Dear readers – wish us luck in this endeavor, would you please? So much can still thwart our efforts, but for now we have three die-hards on the team: the school counselor (who is the one who will handle most of the internal communications), and one of the geo-science teachers who kindly offered to try to convince the other teachers to incorporate this project in their lesson plans – whether it be biology, construction, health, or other subjects, and myself. Most of all – wish us luck in presenting this as something the kids can get behind, and get excited about. We want the kids to own this project, and to be proud of it. And we want them to take the skills it taught with them when they leave, and for those skills to enrich their lives for years to come.

Yesterday, the counselor and I met with the administration. They are firmly in favor of the idea, but there are many potential hurdles to work through before this becomes a reality – if ever. The working name of this project is the Benson Centennial Garden, and we barely have two years to pull it off, in order to be ready for the school’s big birthday. It is time to put together a working committee, do all the necessary community outreach to secure the support of the surrounding neighbors and businesses, the Alumni association and the current student and family body. We also need to start thinking about exactly how to finance its making, and how to chase down sponsors. The outcome of yesterday’s meeting also marked the point where I need to start turning my rudimentary concept plan into a detailed presentation that the Portland Public Schools (and, hopefully the Committee) can feel good and confident about getting behind. Stand by for more – if all goes well, this could become very, very cool! 🙂

 

 

 

About annamadeit

Born and raised in Sweden, my aesthetics and outlook on life are strongly shaped by a culture rich in history and tradition. I care a great deal about environmental responsibility, and my aesthetic reflects the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia. I was trained as an architect at the University of Cincinnati and as a color specialist at the Scandinavian Colour Institute in Stockholm. I'm obsessed with plants and gardens, and aim to take my skill set a step further by designing gardens as well as interiors. As someone so aptly said: " Architecture is the skin that separates the exterior from the interior". So true - you can't successfully focus on one without incorporating the other. I'm also an avid cook, and I love to ski. In addition, I put time and efforts into trying to rectify things that I feel are wrong in my immediate community. As you will see, The Creative Flux will touch on all these things, and more. For sure, it's all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blog!
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18 Responses to Me and my head… the Benson High School Garden – Part 1

  1. rickii says:

    Cool indeed. You might look into grants provided by HPSO for starters. This sounds tailor-made.

  2. Alison says:

    Wow! This is ambitious! And such a great idea. I wish you a lot of luck. It will also be perfect for getting you out of your own head (I spend too much time in my own as well).

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks Alison – I will desperately need it! Especially with the committee work with I usually loathe. I do so much better by myself – inside my head, but you are right – this is an ambitious project which no doubt will take a village to pull off. I’m excited about it!

  3. mattb325 says:

    Excellent and exciting idea, and well done on progressing it this far – I certainly do wish you luck!

  4. Kris P says:

    Excellent idea, Anna! Good luck!

  5. Loree says:

    Wow, you grow girl! Most excellent idea.

  6. Pauline says:

    This is a wonderful project, involving so many different people, I wish you every success and will look forward to reading more about it.

  7. Peter/Outlaw says:

    Can’t wait to see and hear more! Sounds like an amazing project. Such a huge space – so much work. Good luck!

  8. As a teacher/gardener, I really love this! Summer watering and consistent leadership are the biggest hurdles in any school garden project, as well as funds to create the garden. Write a grant to cover installation costs. I’ve written/received three so it’s not impossible and you don’t need to hire a grant writer. I wish more tech schools were still open. They are so vital! Maybe you could find local sponsors to help out with materials. Good luck!

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks! You and Ricki both suggested getting grants, so I will definitely look into it. And I have a few ideas for sponsors. I know a couple of local seed companies are intrigued, so when we get that far…. fingers crossed! 🙂

  9. I love your new project! Good luck, my friend. My Grandfather attended Benson and it launched him into his career as an iron worker. I’m here to help. 🙂

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