Strong Roots at South High School

Every Learning Garden has a story, and at Big Green, those stories contribute to the volumes that are our work. As a Garden Educator, we are often able to watch schools write their stories with their Learning Garden. This is the story of South High School’s Learning Garden in Denver; the impacts the garden has made on the school, and the impact the school has made on Big Green.

South High School is one of the original, directional high schools in Denver and looms over the neighborhood of Washington (‘Wash’) Park. Its 126 year old bones have strong roots, and the grandiose structure serves as a reminder of the history of inclusion and political action that the school has been a pillar for. The Learning Garden at South continues to grow these roots and speak to the existing structure, while creating more space for students outside the school walls.

When South High School applied for a Learning Garden, it was submitted by champions that are still helping to write the story. When I first stepped into Charlie Knepper’s classroom, there was an element of ease in the air. Even with no students in the building, you can still feel that this room is a safe and relevant place in her students’ lives. The whiteboard was dotted with reasons why we need to save the planet and social equity importance; the room temperature is somewhat manually controlled by opening and closing an old window that tends to stick. This is the kind of space you expect after meeting Charlie and hearing her speak about her students – it’s utterly apparent that she has their wellbeing and quality of education in the front of her mind at all times. She told me that when it came down to wanting a garden, It was the students that asked for [the] garden.I believe our present food system is a human rights issue. Many people don’t have access to fresh, healthy food and even folks who have access are still exposed to toxic pesticides.  We’ve lost any sort of connection from our food. Students deserve to have high quality, nutritious food that’s easily accessible. In addition to the access of fresh food, there is the connection that students get with nature. Gardens allow students to be themselves, build confidence, get out of their comfort zone, build relationships, connect their learning, and have conversations. In the school setting, where some students may not feel comfortable, they have this other space, where they can feel safe and comfortable.In an era where we are battling the opposite effects of cell phones, it is nice to unplug and just see the kids smile and hear them giggle when they get dirt all over themselves.”

I met Sean Davis in the fall of 2018 as a fresh new Garden Educator for Big Green, on a mission to deliver a bucket of seeds for their Learning Garden. I took two steps to his one stride as we went up and around South’s hallways to his classroom, talking about the garden plans for the fall and scheduling a harvest day. He shifted in and out of our conversation to talk to several students along the way, highlighting his adaptability and specific, individual nature with each of his students. Sean teaches special education with students of all grades at South, and told me As a special educator, I witness, firsthand, the lack of opportunities afforded to our highest needs students. Many of our students will not attend four-year colleges, and that is okay! Instead, many students need support exploring their interests and abilities, gaining work experience both in and outside of the school, and creating a career plan for their future. The South Learning Garden adds an important missing piece to the puzzle. Our students with disabilities can now gain on-site work experience that not only teaches them the science behind growing food, but it also instills in them the confidence they need to be successful after high school. It’s been an incredibly powerful experience to watch our kids begin to believe in themselves.

Down the stairs, around the corner and through a multipurpose room is another space in South that is carved for inclusion and food equity. It’s home to South’s food pantry, footed by Food for Thought – Denver, a 100% volunteer based nonprofit that hosts food pantries in schools. I was lucky enough to spend time with Jacquelyn Yelich and Greg Thielen, who run the Food for Thought program at South, this past winter. The food bank at South is visited by more than 100 students every week, and not necessarily the same students. Jacquelyn said on days when there is fresh produce in the food bank, it is the first to be chosen. The produce that the food bank has is primarily coming from the Learning Garden, and is often a source of familiar food for refugee students from several backgrounds.

When school is released for the summer, and the old bones of South High get a chance to rest, Chris Woodburn ramps up his Garden of Youth program that he heads through the Denver’s Department of Sustainability. Garden of Youth hires students with disabilities to grow and sell organic produce at different Denver Public Schools. Students apply with their resume and complete an interview process; if hired, upon the completion of the paid 10-week program students have an updated resume and a reference. Chris and the students have a garden at South High School that shares space with the Learning Garden – truly maximizing the space for real food – and grow and tend to both garden spaces throughout the summer. When asked about the program, Chris said “…Garden of Youth provides a path toward employment in more independent living.  DPS students that complete an internship have a 94% graduation rate compared with 34% for all students with disabilities.  Beyond the data, watching a student that previously would not eat something that didn’t come of a box or bag, share the produce they have grown with peers is rewarding in a way that is hard to express.”

It is always a privilege to watch schools write their stories with Learning Gardens, and I often wonder if they know what a big part they are of our story as an organization; a part of the story of a national food movement; a part of the Denver Food System; a part of the fight for equity. For our Vice President of Growth, Phil Hicks, an experience in South’s Learning Garden was what sealed the deal for him to work at Big Green when a student proclaimed that the day in the garden was the best day of his life. They are the best days of our lives, too.

Kelsey Gray

Denver Garden Educator