Seeds of Change: How Urban Agriculture is Growing Our School

When schools refine their focus and synergize all their efforts around innovative initiatives they begin to, sometimes literally, see the fruits of their labor. This summer, a team of teachers from Marbut Traditional Theme School met to discuss our ongoing school improvement plans.  We’d been pursuing STEAM certification for years with no real traction.  We needed to be more specific about our focus and determine which aspect of STEAM we’d center our collective work around.  Our school is unique in that it operates on a lottery system and students are selected from the attendance zones of four other schools.  Many of our students live in “food deserts”.  The USDA suggests that over 23 million people in the United States reside in food deserts where access to affordable, healthy food options are limited or non-existent. With a sprawling campus spread across 2 acres and a building of over 91,000 square feet, it was decided that our green spaces lent themselves well to a focus on urban agriculture.  We already had a butterfly garden, a vegetable garden, and had recently built 3 additional planting boxes in the front of school with support from parents and community sponsors.  

My excitement around the ideas of urban agriculture can be traced back to my South Georgia roots. My father majored in Agriculture at Fort Valley State University and he and my mother spent a considerable amount of time gardening and landscaping around our home.  Directly behind our house was a vast cornfield.  When asked what I wanted to become in 4th grade, I quickly replied “A farmer”.  My choice was based on a field trip I took with my class where we visited a farm and met with Mr.  Alford McKenzie, an African-American farmer.  He served as the county extension agent from 1963 to 1986.  As he showed us his crops and his cattle, he was planting seeds in my mind that would emerge nearly four decades later.  

A Community Effort 

During the summer of 2019, our vegetable garden produced a large crop of collard greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers.  We continued to brainstorm ways to expand the reach of the garden as an outdoor classroom. Our STEAM teacher, Mr. Anthony Mays, began visiting other STEAM certified schools to gather ideas.  Upon returning, he would meet with me, share the innovations he observed and redeliver to the faculty to get their insights and reach a consensus about what projects truly aligned to our goals and school culture.  

With a refined focus on urban agriculture, we had a much better net for attracting the right types of community partners.  One of our first partners in this work was Mr. Ryan Dunn who had worked with other metro-Atlanta schools on setting up aquaponics systems where students could grow vegetables that were nourished by the waste from adjacent fish tanks.  It was a way to extend our urban agriculture work beyond the gardens and planting boxes.  Most importantly, it broadened our student’s exposure to ways that foods are produced. Momentum began to build around this idea of urban farming.  Mr. Dunn met with the faculty to discuss how aquaponics provides an opportunity to expose students to the science of food production as well as the economic potential of urban agriculture.  He returned to the school later in the week to speak with parents at a PTA meeting.  We began to share more information about our focus on urban agriculture in our school newsletter and on our Facebook page.  Parents could see what was growing in the garden and what they could do to support our efforts.  We received donations of potting soil and plants. A local hardware store donated lumber to build more planting boxes.   

Most recently, a staff member reached out to a park ranger who visited the school to assess the campus for planting 10 fruit trees.  He determined an ideal location based upon the number of hours of sunlight the trees would need.  Installing an orchard of fruit trees would be a lasting investment on the campus that would provide experiences for future students and families for years to come.  Our PTA has been especially supportive of this work, adding a line item in the budget in support of STEAM and campus beautification.  

We realized that we needed to be intentional about our focus so that it was very clear to a visitor that we are exploring ideas around container gardens, aquaponics, and hydroponics.  Fortuitously, our lobby is designed with skylights, creating a space where natural light pours in throughout the entire day. We brought in containers and planted kale, cabbage, basil, and tomatoes.  Beyond the lobby, we began to research school-wide growing projects that could be implemented in every classroom with minimal time investment from the teachers.  We decided to begin growing sweet potatoes by cutting them in half, partially submerging them in water, and allowing them to take root. Students and teachers can keep data on the growing process and plant them in the garden in the Spring.  

The parallels between teaching and farming teach us lessons about ourselves.  Urban farming, like teaching, requires a level of resourcefulness.  As we have rolled out our school-wide planting projects, you see vast differences in how teachers problem-solve and improvise.  One’s ability to find alternative solutions, elicit support, or brainstorm with a team on these projects comes across in their teaching and grade level collaborations as well.  Those teachers who are dependent on others to solve their problems or use obstacles as excuses to stall implementation carry that approach into every aspect of their lives. One of my mantras is “Champions don’t make excuses, they make adjustments.” I say this to students over the intercom and to staff members in faculty meetings. Masterful teachers understand that learning is a process of creating the right environment for growth to occur.  They understand that certain students grasp concepts quickly and others need a different set of conditions to reach mastery just as certain seeds take longer to germinate than others.  With a committed staff and supportive community, we are planting seeds of change.  

Published by Andre Benito Mountain

Andre Benito Mountain is an elementary principal in the metro-Atlanta area. He is the founder of Def-ED Clothing and the author of The Brilliance Beneath (2016), "The Mountain Principles" (2018) and "Principals Don't Walk on Water" (2020) . His forthcoming book is "Virtually Lost" (2021).

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