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.
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.
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.
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!
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! 🙂