Marshall Elementary School students learn about soil in a Tuesday afternoon outdoor classroom lesson. Photo by Erica Hellerstein.

It’s a noisy Tuesday afternoon on Mission and 16th. Music blares through the crackle of static, tires screech and vendors hawk their wares.

But just one block down from the raucous intersection, the soundtrack of Mission life melts away. At the Marshall Elementary School garden, students sift through soil and gingerly smell plants. A garden program coordinator patiently sits with them, teaching lessons about sustainability and food justice.

“This is literally an oasis. A little green spot in a concrete jungle,” said Greg Arias, a science teacher at the school.

The garden, also known as an outdoor science classroom, blossomed out of funding from the Green Schoolyard Program, a leg of the San Francisco Unified School District Proposition A Bond Program. In 2003, the proposition set aside $2.3 million dollars for greening at 26 school sites.

Today, Marshall is reaping the benefits.

“We just harvested our fall crops. We’re preparing our garden bed and we’ll be putting in our winter crops: leafy greens, mustard, kale. Each kid will plant their own seed and watch it grow,” said Claire Lagerwey, garden program coordinator.

Planning commenced after the school community voted to move forward with the project in the 2010-11 school year. After a landscape artist assessed the space and started working on the design plan, Marshall broke ground in the summer of 2011.

In one year, the space was transformed. Last summer the area designated for the garden was just a slab of concrete with a solitary tree, said Marshall PTA President Michele McMahon-Cost. Now it’s lush with sunset-colored magnolias, leafy citrus trees and glossy green cucumbers.

“Marshall has done a good job using a small space to create an outdoor classroom. They have a high percentage of low-income students, but what we’re seeing is a diversity of people at the school that make it really rich and vibrant. We’re delighted to be a part of their tapestry,” said Rachel Pringle, director of programs at Education Outside, a nonprofit organization that works closely with SFUSD to help build green schoolyards.

In the garden classroom, every month has a theme, Lagerwey said. “For example, August was intro to the garden. Right now all the classes are doing soil. Next month all the classes will be doing plants.”

At the beginning of each month she hands teachers her lesson plans, giving them the opportunity to collaborate with her in the garden or conduct their own classes outside.

In the Mission, a neighborhood with limited park space, just being outside — smelling soil and chasing butterflies — is a welcome escape for students.

“They really do engage out here,” said Lagerwey. “They love it. It’s a great way to get kids to see the cycle of what’s happening.”

Though students may revel in the outdoor play, these opportunities are dependent on the one thing plaguing schools throughout the district: scarce funding in an era of cutbacks. The Prop. A bond money can be used to construct the garden, but not for garden maintenance or hiring teachers such as Lagerwey.

“We have money for things — we can purchase seeds, we have money for murals — but it has to be used for physical things, not the instructor,” she said.

This is a key concern to administrators at Marshall. Without someone to take ownership of the space, they say, it will inevitably fall apart.

Lagerwey’s position is funded entirely through school fundraising and a grant from Education Outside, and administrators aren’t sure whether it will be funded for the 2013-14 school year.

But that doesn’t stop the weekly lessons from moving forward. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Lagerwey brings two classes of 12 into the garden.

“Each kid gets out here twice a month,” she said. “It would be great to get out here once a week.” But that would require more hours — and more funding. Many schools that were given funding to build gardens don’t have the resources to hire instructors or maintain the space.

Schools in more affluent neighborhoods, with large PTAs, are able to supplement the position through fundraisers and parent donations. But for Marshall, a school in which 84 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunches, those opportunities are limited.

“Our long-term vision is, how do we keep this sustainable from year to year?” said Marshall’s principal, Peter A. Avila. “The hardest thing right now is keeping this thing going.”

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1 Comment

  1. As a parent at Marshall, and an integral part of our greening efforts, I would extend the offer to readers to make a donation to Marshall PTA to help keep, Claire Lagerwey, our wonderful garden coordinator. We need the community’s help to raise this money. Thank you.
    Audrey Newell, fourth grade parent

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