By Kevin Buggie
[Kevin is a 2nd grade teacher at Chee Dodge Elementary, owner of Black Diamond Canyon Farm, and ’96 graduate of Gallup High School.]
Most gardens come about as a result of quiet, solitary hours spent working the soil and tending the crops in the backyard. Not this one. At times it’s anything but quiet, and it’s existence is directly the result of hundreds and hundreds of hands collectively moving dirt, rigging fences, building beds, sowing seeds, turning wrenches, and many swift keystrokes on a computer. This is no regular garden. It’s our school garden at Chee Dodge Elementary (CDE) in Yah-ta-Hey, 5 miles north of Gallup.
The project was envisioned 7 years ago and began under the direction of kindergarten teacher, Liz Caravaca. She secured the first funding in the form of small grants from the National Garden Association and Public Utilities of New Mexico. Partnering with New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), under the direction of Karl Lohmann, an acre of rolling sand and sagebrush was cleared and fenced.
Staffing turnover that seems an inevitable part of school life in Gallup took its toll on the garden’s progress in the next few years and the garden space hosted only a few small rows that served a good purpose, but didn’t quite live up to the garden’s potential.
Meanwhile, the national trend of increasing obesity among students significantly affected CDE; biannual body mass index (BMI) measurements of all students backed this up. Kindergarten teacher, Marilyn Ellison of Manuelito, saw the same patterns in the surrounding community and knew, “We had to start increasing the daily consumption of fruit and vegetables, along with access to exercise.”
Enter Navajo Coordinated Approach to School Health and the addition of a couple veteran teachers who understood the incredible academic resource a school garden could be. Those teachers, Stacey Lovell (4th grade) and Cindy Arsenault (3rd grade), working with Ms. Ellison, wrote a Coordinated School Health (CSH) proposal for an ambitious $40,000 wellness campaign at CDE including after-school exercise nights, healthy cooking classes for parents, fresh vegetable snacks in the classrooms, and a significant amount of funding for a garden and greenhouse to supply fresh vegetables to the school cafeteria. It came as little surprise to anyone who’s seen those three in a classroom that the proposal was successful!
We’re now in the second year of the campaign, and with the additional resources from CSH the garden as finally arrived at Ms. Caravaca’s original vision: an outdoor learning space where real-world experiences let students actually apply the often abstract math and language arts concepts they’ve learned in the classroom in a meaningful context. Most adults know those are the types of lessons we really remember from school all these years later.
In the first year we purchased a 15’ x 9’ greenhouse, built 20 large raised-bed gardens, tilled up 500’ feet of in-ground rows, purchased student and adult hand tools, and installed the most efficient drip irrigation water system available. During the final months of last school year students in all grade levels had played a roll in planting tomatoes, green chilies, cucumbers, watermelons, spinach, pumpkins, cabbage, potatoes, squash, Navajo popcorn, and their hands-down favorite, “Broccoli!”
During the summer YCC “master gardener” crews, supervised by John White of Manuelito and Americorps VISTA volunteers Zoe Scott and William Oliver from the Boys and Girls Club, worked hundreds of hours as they constructed the greenhouse, rabbit-proofed 800 feet of the garden fence, and put in another 2000 feet of rows we’ll sow with carrots, lettuce, and spinach this fall semester. These young men and women were an impressive sight to see as they worked meticulously through the hot July and August sun, never once fudging safety rules or cutting corners. My returning students also thought they were pretty cool, firmly establishing them as role models this community can be more than proud of.
So now the little hands really get to work. Students will continue to plant, monitor, harvest, and eat vegetables throughout the school year. They’ll be practicing math, writing, and reading skills while engaged in science and social studies lessons in the garden, all while they’re also practicing interpersonal skills, building character, and growing healthy bodies in ways equally important to any academic lesson. Students will also have an opportunity to make connections between these lessons and their Navajo culture at our traditional harvest festival in late September.
CDE principal, Edie R. Morris of Tohatchi, aptly describes the fundamental importance of this project and others like it around our state and the Navajo Nation in saying, “Serving a child comprehensively is the key to success.”