Schoolyard garden turns into “habitat”
New Haven Independent. Maya McFadden. May 31, 2019.

Second through fifth-grade students from East Rock Community and Cultural Studies Magnet School got their hands dirty Thursday expanding a garden into something bigger with Common Ground High School’s Schoolyard Habitat program.

“This is hard but it’s fun,” one second grader said while filling in what will be the kindness rock garden area with soil.

The CT Schoolyard, the Common Ground-based organization that put together the project, currently has 22 partner schools and has constructed habitat gardens at 14. East Rock is one of its longest-standing partner schools. The program works with the schools to develop a native planting plan and outdoor learning spaces while also offering training and lessons on environmental restorations. 

Erika Koch, a fourth-grade teacher at East Rock, worked closely with Schoolyard Habitat to learn more on how to integrate the outdoor learning space into the school’s curriculum.

“It’s like social justice but in a cloaked way,” said Holsenbeck.

Some of the students started off reluctant to get dirty in fear of bugs. Schoolyards Program Coordinator Kendra Dawsey told them about the importance of earthworms and lawn grubs.

The outdoor project will also include a new Outdoor Maker Space with hopes to further engage the students which will now be installed in the fall. 

The students planted native shrubs and fruits and vegetables in the garden. Peppers, green and red cabbage, eggplant, chives, cantaloupe, and watermelon were just a few of the foods planted.

“You can tell the health of the school by the health of the garden,” said Holsenbeck.

Holsenbeck said that more about 60 percent of teachers from Schoolyard Habitat’s partner schools have reported bringing their students outside for something other than recess.

“Can you guys stay until my mom picks me up so she can see how to build one of these gardens at home?” asked a fourth grader from Angela Maiocco’s class.

Recently this year, a total of seven trees were planted in the schoolyard by the Urban Resources Initiative (URI) to continue their work to restore native habitats for birds and other pollinators.

“We have the expectation that teachers will work it into their units so students aren’t left thinking this work was just a one-time thing,” said Dawsey.

Thursday’s project is part of an effort to allow students, particularly those who are students of color and/or with disabilities, find a place in the community and feel helpful, said Suzannah Holsenbeck, Common Ground’s schoolyards manager and a former high school teacher and administrator.

East Rock’s student population is 44 percent Hispanic, 35 percent African American, 6 percent Asian, and 1 percent American Indian, according to a parent-teacher organization, grant application for a $5,000 Lowe’s grant that helped fund the program,.

Holsenbeck and Dawsey said that through their work they have often seen many students who struggle in traditional in-class learning atmospheres show the most enthusiasm and interest for the outdoor STEM learning experience.

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