School gardens score in Iowa City district

Reading, math among skills used to grow produce

Eighth graders James Goods, 13, (left) and Avianna Woods, 14, (right) point towards growing produce in the school garden
Eighth graders James Goods, 13, (left) and Avianna Woods, 14, (right) point towards growing produce in the school garden at the Northwest Junior High School in Coralville while Language Arts teacher Mike Loots watches on Tuesday, September 11, 2012. (Kyle Grillot/The Gazette-KCRG)

CORALVILLE — Avianna Woods can’t help but beam as she stands in her garden. She loves everything about it. Well, almost everything.

“I’m not too fond of spiders,” the 14-year-old said as she stood next to a raised bed. “They’re scary. They’re huge and they’re creepy.”

Woods, of Coralville, is one of 15 students at Northwest Junior High School in Coralville responsible for creating and maintaining the building’s garden under the instruction of teacher Mike Loots. Woods and her peers will sell the literal fruits — and vegetables — of their labor Saturday at the farmers market in downtown Iowa City.

Woods and her classmate James Goods, 13, of Iowa City, who lives in Iowa City, are both excited for the big sale, the first farmers market experience for the duo.

“Then we can grow more and sell it again,” Goods said, adding that he’ll feel “relieved” when someone buys something from the garden.

Produce grown on the grounds of five additional Iowa City Community School District buildings — Iowa City West High School, Mann, Shimek, Lemme and Garner elementary schools — is also eligible to be sold on Saturday.

With help from Farm to School, a healthy food and education program with which Iowa City schools partnered beginning in 2010, the district added six new school gardens this year, bringing its total to 15.

“This year, it’s just taken off,” said Heather Widmayer, the district’s Farm to School coordinator. “One of our goals, one of the goals of Farm to School, is to give teachers the opportunity to learn how to coordinate the garden in the classroom.”

Project-based learning

With its rustic makeshift tool shed and raised beds boasting a little bit of everything — broccoli, lettuce and enough different kinds of tomatoes to satisfy even the pickiest connoisseur — the junior high school’s garden radiates an aura of do it yourself.

“The students were involved from the very beginning,” said Loots. “They did it all.”

Loots, who came to the Coralville school last year on an Early Intervention Services grant to boost black students’ reading scores, conceived the project with a friend from the University of Iowa in part after becoming disillusioned with traditional reading curriculum resources.

“It made me depressed and it made my students depressed,” he said. “There’s more than one way to teach the skills.”

Loots admitted he isn’t an expert horticulturist but the garden as classroom idea was born out of his excitement for project-based learning and the flexibility in his position, in which he wasn’t held to teaching a set curriculum.

Loots received educational assistance from Scott Koepke, who heads the Soilmates Organic Garden Education Service through New Pioneer Food Co-op. New Pioneer provided a $50 grant of produce for Northwest, and Koepke has provided $300 grants through Soilmates to get other Iowa City district gardens into the ground. Gardeners from the University of Iowa also helped out.

“We begged and borrowed and Dumpster-dived to get this going,” Loots said, noting that the vast majority of the tools, materials and plants in the junior high garden were donated.

Planning by students

Loots and his learners logged hours in the library reading all about what they needed to do in order to start a garden.

“I was kind of excited at first,” said Woods, who is now in eighth grade at the junior high. “Then I found out about all the work we had to do.”

The students had to figure out how much space they would need for the garden, decide which fruits, vegetables and herbs they’d like to grow and then devise ways to care for them.

“It was hard,” said Woods. “We had to plant in the snow.”

Eventually students began incorporating math skills into the gardening through figuring out ratios of fertilizer to water and square footage as well as refining applied math skills in measuring and cutting wood for the raised plant beds.

“We tricked them into doing all that reading, writing and math without them realizing it,” Loots said.

To him, the trick appeared to work.

“I saw their scores improving,” Loots said. “Some (students) really took to it.”

Garden growth

Widmayer said she hopes to see gardens spring up at other Iowa City schools and eventually be able to provide fresh produce for school lunches throughout the district, something the students who maintain West High School’s garden have already accomplished for their cafeteria.

As for Loots, who now teaches language arts, he wants to get even more students involved.

“I need to figure out a way to get more kids seeing the garden and eating what’s in it,” he said. “That might mean scaling up.”

Sales from the Farmers Market will go back into Farm to School and toward sustaining the district’s current gardens and potentially helping to create new ones.“The more a school community supports the garden, the more successful the garden is going to be,” Widmayer said.  

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.