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Cambridge school is awarded for rewarding work

In this Inspire feature we visit an award-winning group of gardeners at Stewart Avenue Public School where children are learning about nutrition and life skills by growing vegetables

All vegetable gardeners start their plots with hopes for a good harvest, but this year special education teacher Sarah Willet is hoping to cultivate more than healthy greens in the garden at Stewart Avenue Public School.

“My students are special education students,” said Willet. “All of my students have autism and it’s a cool thing for them to be able to get involved and kind of learn those life skills, which is why I love it for my class but also with the other classes.”

Willet’s efforts to grow a garden at the school have been made a lot easier with the help of grants and awards totalling about $1,500.

“The project started last year,” she said. “I submitted an application to Waterloo Region School Food Gardens and around the same time, I filled out the application for the Tim Walker Memorial Award and we got both.”

This isn’t the first school vegetable garden Willet has planted.

“I had done one previously at my last school, Margaret Ave. in Kitchener,” she said.  “We got the Tim Walker Award there as well and used the money to build the garden at that school.”

The Tim Walker Memorial Award for Environmental Stewardship was established in 2006 to honour the life and work of secondary school teacher, Tim Walker. It awards schools for teaching and promoting the growth and sustainability of green initiatives.

The Waterloo Region School Food Gardens project provides schools in the region with tools and materials to grow vegetables for educational purposes and consumption.

“They supplied all the lumber, all the soil, seeds and tools like rakes and shovels,” said Willet.

“They helped to put the garden together and coordinated the soil drop-off as well. My kids were so excited to see the big trucks dropping off all the soil and then they helped shovel all the soil into the garden beds.”

The beds were prepared on the front lawn of the school last fall.

“Two young ladies came out for the day along with a few of my students,” said Willet. “The winter hit, and we waited for the spring.”

The third wave of COVID also hit and the transition to online learning created challenges for Willet and others who are committed to the garden project.

“When I applied for it originally, all these staff members were telling me, yes, yes, yes, our class is going to help,” said Willet. “It will be a great learning opportunity. Then COVID hit and everyone is online.” 

Willet, however, is teaching a hybrid class which means she has some online students and some in-class.

“Out of the six students in my class I have two in the classroom and the other four are all working at home and they meet with us online throughout the day for synchronous learning as well,” she said. “It definitely has been a challenge for myself and my team because we are trying to balance a hybrid model and balance online meeting times with the students while also providing instruction for students in-class.”

The in-class students have been able to help get the garden started.

“We managed to get some seedlings in the ground and started to water them last week so, that has kind of happened in the last two weeks,” she said. “Then, when we got word that we got the Tim Walker Memorial Award I went to the principal. I said, we already have the funding for the garden. We have already built the garden. So, what can we do with this money to better that space?”

They came up with a plan to broaden the teaching opportunities of the garden while doing a bit of a landscaping upgrade as well.

“We decided we want to turn that front space of the school into an outdoor classroom,” said Willet. “We are hoping to put a couple large rocks out front that students can come out and sit on and do some learning outside. The school is also going to help fund the rest of the beautification project.”

The outdoor classroom and the garden promise to be effective learning environments for her autistic students but they will also benefit other students at the school.

“Kindergarten is all about inquiry-based learning so, I am hoping maybe they can get in there and do some inquiry learning about how things grow and what makes gardens successful,” she said. “We are kind of hoping by putting them in the front of the school they will be seen more by the neighbours and maybe eventually we could get the neighbours involved and just kind of make it a community thing.”

It is also an effective way of initiating collaboration with parents whose children are home learning online

“I have been getting videos and pictures and stories from parents at home saying we started a garden this year with our child,” said Willet. “So, even though they are not able to do it with us here at school some of them are able to do it at home in their own gardens.”

Willet’s students are part of an Alternative Continuum of Education class or ACE.

“The curriculum is different, and it does focus on literacy and math but there is also an entire section of our curriculum that is about citizenship,” she said. “There is an entire section about personal life development.”

Even what they do with the final harvest provides valuable life lessons about empathy and community

“I would love if the food we grow is used in some of our programs like, the breakfast program they have at the school or Nutrition for Learning where teams come in and help to provide snacks for students who may come to school without them,” said Willet. “We’re kind of at a root stage, pun intended. We are trying to see what it could turn into.”