Hard Soil

If you’ve gardened, then you know that it’s best to plant seeds and bulbs in loose, giving soil. Hard soil is difficult to work with. But sometimes, hard soil is what you have.

Garvey Elementary School is on Chicago’s far south side, on 103rd street. It’s in the Morgan Park community, bordered by Roseland and Washington Heights – two areas ranked as the city’s 16th and 26th most violent of the city’s 77 communities for the period between April 5 and May 5 of 2016. Life around Garvey is not easy. It’s like hard soil.

The school itself is small by most Chicago public school standards – just 280 students. But, an incredible 23% of Garvey’s students have special needs – from health issues, like diabetes, to learning differently. Maudie Walls, a 23-year veteran, is their special-education classroom teacher and leader on Garvey’s Learning Garden Team.

Ms. Walls is incredible: She speaks with a beautiful southern drawl. She wears nail polish that resembles garden colors – green, yellow, pink. She’s also a native of Mississippi who grew up on a farm, so she knows a thing or two about gardening. Even so, she tells us that she learns something new every year with our garden.

And so do her kids.

Because of the Learning Garden, her special-needs students learn in 3D. Rather than study a bulletin board display of paper and string to learn how root vegetables grow, the students march outside to the garden, to pull a real onion from real soil. Soil that’s loose and giving.

One student, Anthony, loves to play in the soil, more than he likes to sit down with pencil and paper. He is very focused while working in the learning garden – taking great care to use a clean Popsicle stick to properly measure how deeply a seed is planted and how much soil should cover it. The concentration he exhibits in the learning garden carries over to the classroom, where Ms. Walls works with him on forming letters and using punctuation marks, coaxing him to focus on these things just as he does with seeds. The good news? Anthony is experiencing success in both places.

We have research that tells us that our Learning Gardens help students focus academically. Anthony’s experience tells us that, too.

We need your help. We want to build more gardens in more schools to connect with more “Anthonys”. We want to be ready to dig into Chicago’s hard-soil communities and loosen them up for children.