Chris is the mom of three boys. Her oldest son, Jack, was in third grade when Chris became involved with gardening at Commodore Sloat. Chris is a former chef and cookbook collaborator. She currently works with Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

The problem

In the fall of 2000, there was a neglected, unused courtyard at Commodore Sloat Elementary filled with dead trees, weeds and rock-hard dirt. A few teachers had created small container gardens with their classes, and they wanted to turn the unattractive courtyard into a larger school garden.

Making a change

Four teachers approached Chris during the 2000-2001 school year and asked if she would lead an effort to turn the courtyard wasteland into a school learning garden. Chris loved organic gardening and agreed to take on the project. She began by evaluating the space and considering what needed to be done. She visited other school gardens and met with the school district landscape and plumbing department to get buy-in for the project. She also helped organize a Learning Garden Steering Committee made up of interested teachers and parents.

That summer, Chris and a group of parents met for the first “Green Up Clean Up” work day and broke ground. The PTA provided $2500 for a drip irrigation system to water the garden during school breaks. Chris solicited donations of many garden essentials, including seeds, tools and lumber, from local businesses. She also led fundraising efforts and applied for grants to support the garden. Work on the garden continued throughout the 2001-2002 school year.

During the 2002-2003 school year, classes began working in the garden and teachers began using garden-related activities in the classroom. Chris donated many hours of her time working with classes in the garden and helping teachers integrate the garden into their teaching. In recent years, representatives from Commodore Sloat attended green school conferences, one teacher started a school-wide composting program, the school received a grant that enabled it to buy a green house, and parents raised enough money to hire a paid garden coordinator to work with teachers and students. The garden has become an important focus for the school.

Getting other parents involved

Chris and the other parents on the Garden Steering Committee involve more parents in the physical work of creating and maintaining the garden by holding several “Green Up Clean Up” days each year. It is a fun day where several families come on a weekend day to spruce up the school and work in the garden. The first year, parents helped clear the dead plants from the courtyard, build retaining walls, and improve the soil.

Working with the school

Because the idea for the garden originated with teachers, the project had a good deal of school support from the beginning. Some teachers, however, were not sure what to do with their students in the garden and already felt there were too many activities taking away from instructional time. Chris overcame this hesitation by working directly with the teachers and their classes in the garden, and researching ways to integrate the garden into the curriculum. As the teachers saw how much their students loved the garden and how it could reinforce learning, they became much more involved and enthusiastic. Chris notes that it was important to listen to the teachers to see how they wanted to use the garden with their classes and provide manpower to help the teachers so that the garden was not an additional burden.

Major challenges

Chris believes hiring a garden coordinator is essential to the success of a school garden, but it is also the biggest barrier for schools trying to create gardens. The garden coordinator works with teachers to plan how garden activities will be integrated into the curriculum, oversees garden maintenance and works directly with classes in the garden. Without a coordinator, it is difficult for many teachers to find ways to use the garden meaningfully, but hiring a coordinator costs approximately $20,000 per school year, an expense few schools can afford. For the first few years, Chris donated 20 to 30 hours per week of her own time filling this role on a volunteer basis. The school now has a paid coordinator, partly made possible through garden-specific fundraising and grant writing by Commodore Sloat parents.

How the school has benefited

The garden at Commodore Sloat has become a real focus of the school, and has increased family involvement. Families now gather in the garden before and after school, and parents and grandparents from many ethnic groups participate in garden activities with their children’s classes. Grandmothers bring seeds from their gardens at home, help the students grow the vegetables, and then come cook with the class. Teachers also use the garden to teach many different subjects. The garden inspires students’ writing and art, and provides motivating lessons in measuring, prediction, nutrition and life sciences. Commodore Sloat students have a greatly increased interest in vegetables! An unforeseen benefit to the school has been the school composting program, which was started in conjunction with the garden. The program has helped reduce waste at Commodore Sloat by 52 percent.

Tips for other parents

Chris recommends that parents who want to make an improvement at their schools work closely with the principal and staff. It is easier to make a change if it fits within the school’s vision and priorities. Chris believes it is important for parents to respect the domain of the principal and teachers. The parent’s goal should be to support teachers, allowing them to bring more energy and creativity to the classroom. She also recommends being clear with yourself about why you are taking on the project. “Don’t do it for accolades,” she cautions. “You’ll get 10 times more criticism than appreciation. But if your project is needed, it will stick and grow.”