Competing for classroom time against programmable robots and glowing screens isn’t easy, but the Los Altos-based Living Classroom garden education program bucks the tech trend by planting students in the natural world.
In its sixth year of operation, the nonprofit program maintains edible and native gardens at every elementary school in the Los Altos and the Mountain View Whisman school districts, complementing the schools’ curricula.
During the 2013-2014 school year, 3,300 students in the Los Altos School District will participate in more than 425 garden-based lessons that comply with one or more of California’s Next Generation Science Standards. The curriculum parallels the Common Core Standards that will soon be adopted in the school districts.
“The Living Classroom is tailor-made to support this new approach to learning,” said Living Classroom founder Vicki Moore. “It’s not just about life science, but math and history and mastering a concept. That’s easy to do in the garden because it’s hands-on.”
What makes the garden grow?
“Daddy Dave,” the name some students have dubbed Los Altos resident Dave Peterson, leads a small group of second-graders through a gate into the edible garden at Oak Avenue School. He gathers the children around two raised beds of wheat they planted last fall. It’s harvest time, and the students croon in excitement as they cut sheaths of wheat they will later winnow and grind into flour using stone and a hand-crank grinder.
When Peterson returns for the third lesson in the “From Seed to Pretzel” curriculum, students enjoy the fruits of their efforts by baking pretzels from the flour they ground.
“If I could do it full time, I would,” said Peterson, who has volunteered with the program for more than four years.
According to Moore, it costs approximately $10,000 per year for supplies, maintenance and program expenses at each garden site. Compared to the cost of other experiential learning programs, the Living Classroom strives to provide the biggest bang for the buck.
Despite a bare-bones budget, the program draws consistent support from the Los Altos Educational Foundation, the Los Altos Community Foundation and numerous parent-teacher associations. Donations of volunteer time and food to supplement garden harvests from contributors such as Whole Foods Market allow the program to operate on a minimal budget.
While Moore is grateful for the corporate volunteers who participate in workdays and the Eagle Scouts who construct planter boxes and outdoor classrooms, she emphasized that volunteer docents are the lifeblood of the program.
The more than 35 docents not only serve as instructors, but also as mentors and adult role models with unique experiences and expertise to share with students. Program docents teach approximately 85 percent of all Living Classroom lessons.
The structure of the Living Classroom program enables continuity even when students, parents and/or administrators cycle in and out of schools. Unlike some supplementary educational experiences that have a one-time impact, the Living Classroom program aims to lay a foundation in early elementary grades and build on those lessons in subsequent years. Because lessons follow the curriculum taught in the classroom, the docent-led programs are relevant and provide connection, Moore said.
“The hands-on and life experiences cannot be underestimated,” said docent Ruth Handel.
Local residents often stumble on one of the Living Classroom gardens when visiting an elementary school campus for a weekend ballgame, performance or other programming.
“People know about the classrooms because they see the gardens,” Moore said.
All but one of the gardens are located on public property and are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even local residents without children in the schools can benefit from the islands of biodiversity scattered throughout Los Altos and Mountain View. Interpretive signs in the native gardens inspire some residents with landscaping ideas for their own yards, and the plethora of insects and birds that populate flowers in the garden add value.
Although the long-term impact of the program on the community and students can only be measured with time, Moore said the Living Classrooms are establishing roots and teaching the value of balancing screen time with green time.
“We’re helping to grow a generation of students who will be environmental stewards,” she said. “We need to have people who understand that nature is what keeps us alive.”
To volunteer and for more information, visit living-classroom.org.
Living Classroom program introduces youth to gardening - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier