To better understand open green space on school campuses, the Growing School Gardens task force surveyed the state of gardens that already exist at more than 300 Chicago public schools.
The same task force survey also identified each type of existing garden.
Courtesy of Robin Carlson/Chicago Botanic Garden
Students at St. Monica’s Academy in Northwest Chicago learn about plant-based farming and nutrition as part of an interdisciplinary environmental curriculum developed by leaders from the Chicago Botanic Garden.
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Art meets nature at local school garden
Upon approaching the Franklin Fine Arts Center, a K-8 school in Lincoln Park, visitors are greeted with a garden and colorful murals. In the spring, students can be seen sitting out front, drawing or reading as a class.
When art teacher Margaret Koreman joined the faculty three years ago, the Franklin community was hoping to enhance its site entrance, which is now flanked by an Asian-inspired garden. The “perfect triangle” was formed when a parent named Ellen Moderhack, a landscape architect, joined the community and the school received a grant from Openlands, a Chicago-based conservation organization, Koreman said.
With help from parents, Openlands, and the Franklin community, the school was able to produce an academic and artistic green space for students.
“All of us were there at the same moment and really believed in (the garden),” Koreman said. “Art and science go hand in hand, so this was a great opportunity for kids to look at the environment, recycling and tying the arts into nature.”
Parents, faculty and students work together to clean, dig and plant in the garden, which also serves as an outdoor classroom and includes a stage, reading circle, dry pond and Asian bridge. In warm weather, student-made art installations are placed around the garden, from quilts made of plants to tree decorations representing earth, air, fire and water.
Koreman often brings her students outside to draw and photograph the garden.
“You think kids are going to get wild,” Koreman said. “When you get them out there, they start focusing and relaxing. All of a sudden they forget about the time and their problems.”
This past winter, Koreman’s photography class inadvertently helped save the garden from local rodents, when students spotted rabbit scat among the plants. Openlands and the Lincoln Park Zoo worked with the school to rabbit-proof the garden.
Vandalism and year-round maintenance are challenges faced by any school hoping to incorporate a specialized green area on their campus. The school specifically worried about the art in the garden, fearing it might get stolen or damaged, but the community has respected the space, Koreman said.
“(Students) have a definite pride in their building, and the parents do as well,” she added. “Kids can’t wait to get outside. You hear them saying, ‘Can you believe this is in our backyard?’ Some of the kids live in apartments and don’t have opportunities to grow plants.”
Leaders at St. Monica’s Academy in Northwest Chicago, meanwhile, initially offered a town hall-style meeting to engage parents and community members when the school first proposed becoming an environmental academy, according to Anna Viertel of the Chicago Botanic Garden, who worked with the school.
“We addressed parents concerns and had an interface to talk about why it is we’re suggesting that changes get made,” Viertel said.
Like the Franklin community, parents at St. Monica’s voiced concerns year-round garden maintenance and rodents.
“We brought in experts to address questions like, ‘Why sustainability? Why plant-based farming?’ for people who weren’t sold on the idea yet,” Viertel said. “It’s not necessarily a shared value for 100 percent of people and it’s important to engage the conversation early on.”
The Franklin garden was made possible by extensive time and efforts from parent volunteers and Openlands staff, which would not necessarily be readily available to every school community.
But with proper planning and communication, Koreman said, other schools could—and should—create similar garden programs.
“It would benefit any school, just with this idea of getting kids outside to learn in a safe environment that’s beautiful,” Koreman said. “It’s like taking a field trip without filling out a permission slip.”