It’s been a long time coming, but if all goes as planned, students at Pescadero Elementary School will be able to meet in their own outdoor garden classroom by this time next year. The town's agricultural roots make the garden especially appropriate for local youth to cultivate, tend and enjoy.
Countless studies have proven that garden education, and outdoor enrichment in general, help students tie together concepts they are learning in their science classes and other subjects, such as language arts: according to Tara Ballard, after school program coordinator at Pescadero Elementary, garden education can assist in language acquisition.
Students in Pescadero could gain greatly from such opportunities, which is part of the reason the school received an improvement grant last year from the California Department of Education. The grant pays for Pescadero to employ a math coach, a summer school coordinator and community liasion at the elementary school.
Another position funded by the grant is a fitness/nutrition/garden teacher. Greg Virgalitto, the teacher who holds this position, has focused mainly on fitness and nutrition this school year, since Pescadero’s garden is still a work in progress. He remains hopeful of the project’s future, as an enthusiastic committee of parents, teachers, former teachers (including the original garden’s founder, Whitney Cohen) and community members who are pitching in to make the Panther Garden a reality.
The Panther Garden project will also receive significant funding from local supporters TomKat Ranch. The ranch is managing the project for Pescadero Elementary, and hired a landscape architect to design the future garden. Virgalitto is hopeful that Phase 1, which will involve grading the area (now much bigger than the original plot) will begin shortly, and is also looking forward to creating an irrigation system in the garden.
In the meantime, students at Pescadero are preparing for the garden by saving in the cafeteria and in the classroom. “For each lunch, I write on a whiteboard which foods are compostable,” Virgalitto said. The students sort their lunch at the end of the meal into bins of compost, recycling and trash. Student council members then check the bins to make sure that what goes into the compost bins is only food that comes from plants.
Each classroom also has their own worm bin, for breaking down paper recycling and building healthy soil. While the planning committee for the garden is focusing on its long term vision, Virgalitto is also working on getting plants in the ground, hopefully in time for a summer school program that will be happening at the school.
Once their garden is up and running, Pescadero Elementary will join in Half Moon Bay and schools throughout California and across the country with on-site gardens. There is even an educational vegetable garden at the White House, where school children in Washington D.C. dig in with Michelle, Sasha, and Malia on a variety of work projects.
Kellie Marcuson is a past parent at Pescadero Elementary and now works for the on-site after school program. She is optimistic that the garden will be complete by next year, given the enthusiasm and participation so far.
The school cafeteria's compost system also makes her proud, as she feels it helps students get a greater understanding of how organic matter can break down to enrich the soil for a new generation of plants to grow from.
“It’s little things like that,” she said, “that make the difference between reality and a pipe dream.”