The Learning Garden: Bringing the Classroom Closer to the Community
Location: Venice, California
Contact: David King; 310.722.3656; firstname.lastname@example.org
Since 2001, the Learning Garden of Venice High School has played an important role in the lives of students, teachers, and members of the local community. Although the Learning Garden is recognized as a model example of an outdoor classroom, it also serves the local community as a gathering place, horticultural resource, and a valuable source of inspiration and pride.
Youth learning together in
It is difficult to imagine that the nearly 1-acre site that is the Learning Garden of Venice High School existed as an overgrown eyesore as recently as 10 years ago. Today the garden features a large stone patio, a greenhouse, a shadehouse, a koi pond with a waterfall and water garden, an educational medicinal plant garden, a series of community garden plots, and a California native plant and cacti garden. The garden acts as a setting for numerous school and community events, and visitors come to the garden from all parts of Venice and beyond. "If anyone asks [the school district] about a good example of a school garden in Venice, they will immediately be sent to us" says Garden Master David King. King often has to juggle simultaneous events taking place in the garden at once, particularly over the summer months when the community uses the garden for meetings, classes, and social events.
History of the Learning Garden:
Even though the site of the Learning Garden was once an overgrown lot, members of Venice High School and the local community had attempted to form a garden there in the past. When Venice High School parent and homeopath Julie Mann showed interest in the plot, she realized that "most people expected failure" because "so many people had tried in the past to do something in the garden and had not been able to accomplish it."
Weeding in the garden
Mann was not deterred, however, and together with fellow herbalist David Crow and the support of the Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine she was able to lease the acre of land free of charge from Venice High School. In 2002 former UCLA staff member David King joined the team, becoming the Garden Master and primary caretaker of the garden. "The community was very supportive of the garden" says King, "and once the community was pulled in, the high school students got pulled in, too." Most of the construction of the garden was done with the help of a large group of volunteers, including landscape designer Stephen Gates and students from Yo San University. Today, Garden Master David King maintains the garden year-round, and students help with maintenance during the school year. While the school provides tools and equipment, funding is provided primarily through local and regional grants, as well as through fundraisers held in the garden.
Learning in the Garden:
Showing off the harvest
When the garden was first founded, there was one horticulture class being taught at Venice High School, with an average enrollment of about 14 students. Since the garden's inception, there has been huge jump in the interest in the school's horticulture program; today 5 classes are taught, with an enrollment of about 125 students. Garden founder Julie Mann feels that the students learn differently in the garden than in a typical classroom: "It's time to look differently at how we teach the curriculum. Learning from doing and learning from participating is a much deeper level of learning than reading from a book."
Horticulture students are not the only ones who use the garden as a resource, and Garden Master David King says that more and more teachers are always bringing their students to the garden to teach subjects as varied as: art, film, photography, geometry, biology, ecology, nutrition, cooking, theatre and even civil war history. Students are able to get involved in their lessons through hands-on experience; as part of their civil war history lessons, for example, students will be able to plant and harvest cotton, spin the cotton into thread, and then use the thread to weave something. Some students take the initiative themselves - "We had one kid who was really interested in rose breeding" says King, "he spent the whole summer in the garden, working with roses. It was a great experience for both of us." A group of students has also expressed interest in forming a garden club that would help tend the garden.
Youth harvesting Swiss Chard
The garden plays an important role for the school's students, and has had some unexpected impacts. Best Buddies, a program that partners special education students with student mentors, uses the garden once a week as the site of picnics between partner students. For some of the special education students, the garden also provides a break from the school day. King explains that "Three years ago, a student came out here to "cool off" a bit after an incident in the classroom upset him...Now the teacher often recommends this to students," as a way to calm down and focus again. Teachers also use the garden to relax, and the garden is a popular spot to take lunch hour.
The Community in the Garden:
Although the Learning Garden is recognized as an innovative school garden, it is unique in that it serves a community that is much broader than the Venice High School students themselves. The Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine has continued to utilize the garden for classes, as have the UCLA Horticulture Department and the Emperor's College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Agape Spiritual Center regularly sends volunteers to the garden, and also hosts special events in the garden.
Gathering seedlings for
The garden has been the setting for numerous community and regional events, including: professional conferences; graduation ceremonies; community service programs; theatrical and musical events; community cooking classes; fundraisers; celebrity photo shoots; and, a documentary film production.
The garden is a source of community pride, and vandalism has rarely impacted the garden since its inception. "This is a depressed, low income community" says King, "and people are proud of this garden." Many people from the surrounding area like to volunteer in the garden and spend time there, and the community garden plots are in high demand. Says King: "The other day a lady came running into the garden and said "I can't thank you enough." That happens almost every week."