Today’s conversation is with Blue Baldwin, Ecology Program Coordinator for Manzo Elementary School. Blue was interviewed by Kathe Sudano on May 11, 2020.
Manzo Elementary in Barrio Hollywood has a reputation. First, they not only increased the amount of time students spend outside (which in 2015 was listed as* thirty minutes) but the staff started a small garden in 2003 that turned into the title of one of the ‘greenest schools in America’ by the Center for Green Schools in 2012. What initially started as a counseling tool, the Reconciliation Ecology Program to transform ‘lives and communities through the promotion of stewardship, healthy choices and innovation in learning and educational facilities,’ has morphed into the curriculum of every classroom. Students and teachers collaborate with scientists and UofA students to care for research gardens, a Sonoran Desert Biome, desert tortoise habitat, vegetable gardens, a small heritage fruit tree orchard, school wide composting program, aquaponics system, and active and passive rainwater harvesting systems. It’s all part of daily life for Manzo students, and it grew organically, little by little, with the help of parents, volunteers and partners from the community, like the University of Arizona Community and School Garden Program (UACSGP) which has worked with Manzo Elementary since the fall of 2010.
Folks think verdant places like Vermont rank high as green centers but that is inaccurate. They set a poor environmental example as the population is spread thinly but there is little mass transit. That makes Vermont one of the most heavily automobile-dependent states in the country. Urban areas that are more compact may be greener, though denser. Cities tend to consolidate and preserve landscapes and resources. So, Manzo students may be ahead of the curve on the environmental learning spectrum.
Manzo students, kindergarten through fifth grade, have daily “farm chores” that–among other things–contribute to a harvest of over one hundred pounds of produce every year. As Manzo is situated in what could be considered a food desert, (where healthy and affordable foods are not easy to come by) one of the goals is to introduce students to a variety of crops at a young age as well as provide the community with fresh produce. The skills learned here influence the kind of adults they will become while getting them interested in the natural world. That can have a lasting effect. You remember the first time you grew a plant from an avocado pit or a potato?
“Subsequently the whole school has good vibes,” Baldwin said. “You really get the sense that the kids here are happy, and they love coming to school. I really believe that, in large part, is because the natural environment is so beautiful and stimulating, and they are involved with all of it. Nothing is off limits to them. They plant the gardens, they harvest, they weed, they water, they hangout in the greenhouse with the fish and aquaponics.”
Students help with planting seeds, watering crops, feeding fish and desert tortoises all while maintaining a butterfly garden. That teaches responsibility; living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant, or pull a flower out by its roots. “It’s a modeling thing,” says Andy Lenartz, a children’s health advocate and psychology professor at Gateway Community College in Phoenix. “I spend a lot of time in nature with my children, and other parents always tell me, ‘I wish my kids liked going outside and doing things.’ Well, it starts with us, the parents. If we want our kids to behave differently, we need to put our own phones down and be role models.”
Exposing elementary students to college and graduate students can enhance the “can-do” attitude that younger students absorb from their older role models. Many of these elementary students become interested in ecology or cultivating plants and the school garden program makes math exciting (planning out crops and rows) and science plausible (how does that chicken lay an egg?). In exchange, UofA interns develop gardening and permaculture skills, work hands-on with K-12 students and cultivate relationships in a community only a stone’s throw but sometimes a world away from the UofA.
Manzo has consistent support from a wide variety of partners and is always looking at increasing opportunities for learning. Keeping all the wheels turning is a challenge and consistent support for programs such as Nature’s Notebook, which tracks observable changes in plants for students to record, is a great way for volunteer naturalists or gardeners to get involved.
What can other environmental and youth centered programs learn from this? That it takes a village, even if your task is to clean the chicken coop, it matters. If you cannot be there, someone else must- so toss in a healthy dose of responsibility.
Imagine your child in the grocery store asking you to purchase the kohlrabi he tasted this week in his school garden? What part of the garden program do you think would have the most lasting impact on children? Do you think there is anything we can learn from the students in their commitment to work?
What does it mean for kids to be able to take ownership/leadership roles to work in the garden? What else might the kids/neighborhood be getting from the garden?
( *A study completed by market researcher Childwise in 2015 and later promoted by the National Wildlife Foundation shows that a modern child spends less than 30 minutes per day outside.)