First Person

Growing a School Garden: Part One

Planting a garden at your school can be as simple or elaborate as your ambitions, financial resources, stamina, and the support of your principal, custodial engineer, and science teacher.

The garden at PS 107
The garden at PS 107

Recently we spoke with Michele Israel, a parent at PS 107 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to find out how she started a garden at her school. We won’t lie to you: The process takes planning, diplomatic skills, research, creativity, resourcefulness and — did we mention this already? — stamina. But if you’re willing to dive in and spearhead a garden at your school, you could be rewarded with the sight of your child joyfully eating the lettuce, peas, and purple basil she herself planted in the school’s courtyard while learning firsthand about growing fresh food and healthy eating.

Because there are so many facets to getting a school garden started, we’ve decided to break down the process into three phases: development/planning, materials/financing, and planting/harvesting. Today we’ll look at the development/planning stage.  Over the next two weeks we’ll cover the other phases.

There can be no garden at your school unless you win people’s support, particularly that of your principal, custodial engineer, PTA board, and teachers. So, before wasting any time researching and planning for a garden, go to your principal and see if she’s receptive to the idea. At PS 107, the principal was on board, but she decided that the garden would go in the school’s courtyard, which did not get optimal sunlight. “Since the principal supported the garden, we figured out how to work with the space,” Michelle said.  In fact, Michele has identified being “a problem solver” as a key characteristic of being a school gardener, since you will run into many unanticipated obstacles, such as getting a space with little to no sunlight.

Once a space had been designated, a small planning team was formed that consisted of three parents and garden designer Bryan Quinn of One Nature Design. Members of the planning team visited a few gardens at other schools to get ideas and then had experienced people take a look at PS 107’s space to let them know what was possible. These people included the then-manager of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s GreenBridge and the executive director of GrowNYC, who happened to be a PS 107 parent at the time. Another person you might want to consider getting feedback from is an experienced gardener from a local community garden.

Another view of the garden at PS 107
Another view of the garden at PS 107

Working for the school on a pro-bono basis, Quinn then created several designs of what the garden might look like. (His work also included a shade study and recommendations for plants.) Before presenting the agreed-upon design to her principal, Michele first showed it to the school’s custodial engineer to find out whether the proposed design interfered with any fire exits or construction mandates. Input from your custodial engineer is critical, since they will know about building regulations, possible sources of water, where to store tools, etc. Once the design received their custodial engineer’s approval, members of the planning committee then presented the design, along with their PTA president, to PS 107’s principal and assistant principal. “The design really helped propel the project,” Michelle said, because helping the principal and assistant principal visualize the garden got them excited about it and convinced them to move ahead.

Accommodating your school administration’s needs and desires will be critical to your garden’s success, as will be your ability to assure them that the garden will not result in any extra work for them. You need to make it clear that you, the parents, will be doing all the dirty work (although in the case of PS 107, the science teacher got involved as well as the children) and that you will be consulting with your principal and custodian regarding each step of the plan. As Michele said, “The garden is not for the parents. It’s for the entire school and the school administrators have the final say … For example, to get access to the school on the weekend, when we did the construction, we needed a permit.” And the only way Michele could get that, as well a key to the courtyard, was through PS 107’s custodial engineer. 

With time, as it became clear that the parents at PS 107 would be taking care of the school garden themselves, everyone became more amenable. The custodial engineer even took a trip to Home Depot to buy a hose with a gift card that the garden committee had won as part of a grant. As Michele says, “A school garden is about developing relationships. … I believe in working as a team and working within the parameters that we have.” In fact, the school administrators are now among the garden’s biggest fans, enthusiastic about ways the garden can grow and be incorporated into the curriculum.

Once you have a plan and the support of your principal, PTA board and custodial engineer, it’s time to form a volunteer gardening committee. In the case of PS 107, they were able to assemble 20 active and committed members including Bryan Quinn of One Nature Design, their science teacher, a local carpenter (a must for the construction of the all-important planters), and parents. The first task of the committee was devising a budget for the garden and securing funds. Next week we will have information about gardening grants, how to secure free tools and seeds, and what materials to consider for your garden.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.