By Lindsay Rusczak | Photography by Beth Mann
On a chilly morning in February, students at Estes Hills Elementary School gather around bags of soil and empty milk cartons. The kids meticulously fill the cartons with soil and seeds, labeling each “eggplant.”
“The milk cartons keep [the seeds] warm,” explains Leutitia, 7. “If they freeze, they won’t grow.”
Working in the Estes Hills Community Garden is a part of the curriculum at the elementary school, allowing every class, such as Leutitia’s, time to get out of the classroom and get their hands dirty.
When Kathleen Eveleigh came to the school as a gifted specialist in 2014, she was given a classroom and the small garden. The latter was just a plot of land overrun with weeds. “I was told that the garden was something I could use to teach students or I could ignore it,” she says. “I chose to use it.”
In her second year at Estes Hills, Kathleen turned the garden into a monarch waystation. Students studied the lifecycle of the monarch butterflies that visited the garden, attracted by milkweed plants. Over the next six years, more parent volunteers and even members from the Chapel Hill Garden Club joined the effort to transform the plot into what the children use today. It features both a pollinator and a fairy garden, as well as a garden where students plant and harvest produce, including strawberries, romaine lettuce, arugula and cabbage.
A chalkboard near the garden displays the total weight of produce grown: 326 pounds. The harvest is shared with families and community members who may not have access to fresh produce.
The parents and teachers of Estes Hills have found that the garden is more than just a space to grow food – it provides opportunities for the students to study outside of the classroom.
“They’re learning about the importance of farmers and farming and what it takes for food to meet their plates,” says Sara Fitch, one of the lead parent volunteers.
Cathy Chianese, a first grade teacher, adds, “[The students] have more of a focus on healthy foods. They’re more willing to try things.”
Corissa Gamble, a third grade teacher, says that parents have noticed a difference as well. After her class grew a cabbage weighing more than 5 pounds, they made it into coleslaw. Some of her students, hesitant to try the new food, were surprised to find that they liked it. “Parents have been emailing me saying, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know what you’ve done, but they’re eating cabbage now,’” she says.
Next to the two gardens is a collection of bird feeders where students take turns filling them with seeds and identifying different bird species that come to eat. The students often take the lessons home. “At my house, I fill the bird feeders – it’s my favorite thing to do,” says Luke, 7.
Lead parent volunteers Diana Almanza and Miranda Wrightensure the time spent in the garden is both fun and educational. A wide array of activities, like bird-watching, planting seeds and even installing a solar panel-powered water fountain, are all completed by the students.
“We track the rain gauge and check the temperature by reading the thermometer,” Martha Grace, 8, says. The students carry a garden journal to document this data and other observations.
The Estes Hills garden is unlike others in the district, says Jess Pusch, the school garden coordinator for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.
“They have teachers coming out here on a weekly basis, which is really unique to the school gardening program, and it’s almost fully parent-run and volunteer-run.”
The efforts have caught the eye of local and national organizations that have awarded grants to fund more projects. Using grant money from the Whole Kids Foundation, the gardeners at Estes Hills have already begun to expand. Volunteers built a greenhouse at neighboring Guy B. Phillips Middle School so that students at both schools could collaborate and grow together. Jess says the garden has become a model for other schools in the district that are starting similar programs.
Back in the garden on that cold February day, the kids finish up planting the eggplant seeds and circle up beside two potted ginkgo trees to hear from Diana and Miranda.
From her classroom overlooking the garden, Kathleen can see the students and volunteers discussing the trees.
“From the start, I wanted it to be a whole school community,” she says, “and that’s what
it’s grown to be.”