Ms. Ontiveros, a teacher at Maple Lawn Elementary School in Dallas, Texas prefers to call her low-performing students her “most beloved students,” because they teach her as much as she teaches them.
One of those students was having a very hard time with speech, reading, and comprehension. Her struggles were so severe that at one point, Ms. Ontiveros felt “hopeless” about her progress.
Yet one day, as that student enjoyed a REAL School Gardens outdoor classroom by running her hands through the water, playing in the dirt, and simply learning-by-doing…a miracle occurred.
“Something happened in her brain and soul,” said Ms. Ontiveros. “She started to read simple words … I felt like I’d won a small battle.” The child, outside the confines of what can be an intimidating formal classroom, was awakened by nature which gave her mind the freedom to think in new ways, and in new places.
REAL School Gardens knows that this transformation wasn’t a coincidence. Their model of bringing real-world learning to elementary school students in the setting of a garden is improving test scores – raising pass rates by nearly 15% in REAL School Gardens’ partner schools – and engaging students in subjects across the board. It’s part of an emerging movement that is gaining fans across the country.
Scott Feille, Regional Director in North Texas, explains: “An outdoor classroom gives a context to what you’re doing in a real-world environment.”
A REAL School Gardens’ exercise might involve having students determine how much fertilizer they need to cover a vegetable bed. Not only do kids learn mathematical concepts like calculating area, but they explore earth science topics like understanding how plants grow. Though math, science, and language arts skills are the most obvious benefits of REAL School Gardens, Feille says there are many more.
“Beyond the academic achievement, kids are being active, learning about healthy foods, getting practice working in teams, becoming environmentally conscious, and improving their health and well-being.”
Feille recounted the story of a Texas Education Agency official who followed a noticeably upset student into the garden. The student explained that the garden, “Doesn’t get mad. It listens to me. It helps me calm down.” After a few minutes in the garden, the now-happy child said, “I feel brand new.”
Especially in low-income schools, children don’t always have a respite to escape their troubles. Sometimes, the garden serves as more than a classroom. It is a safe place to go when the world is caving in, to think, or meet up with friends and mentors.
It isn’t only edifying for students, but for teachers and parents as well. Feille says that one of the most remarkable statistics comes from teachers. After three years in the REAL School Gardens program, teachers were almost twice as likely to report job satisfaction. They also felt more prepared, thanks in part to the rigorous nature of the REAL School Gardens’ partner programs.
The organization doesn’t simply teach schools how to build a garden, but teaches how to build a culture of learning around it. Staff from REAL School Gardens train partner schools for three years, using curriculum that aligns with state-mandated requirements and written by experts in the field. Fundamental to REAL School Gardens’ success is when teachers see how to use the garden as another classroom – similar to a computer lab or other instructional room.
Feille says a good indication of the program’s worth is demand for REAL School Gardens. “We have school leaders calling us and saying, ‘I need one of these here. How can we make it work?’”
Many schools struggle with keeping kids interested in subjects like science, technology, engineering, and math – the core curriculum for jobs that CEOs say are the wave of the future. But thanks to REAL School Gardens, kids across Dallas are not only changing their perception about learning, but changing their lives.
United Way of Metropolitan Dallas supports REAL School Gardens, which is using innovative learning techniques to make real-world classrooms, where math and science meet gardening and growing.