By Eliza Partika
Native flowers and edible plants are popping up just in time for spring at Glendale’s elementary schools, where parent-led foundations have recently funded the expansion of their gardens to help students learn more from the natural world.
Benjamin Franklin Elementary’s green spaces project has been in the works since 2017, when parent volunteers with the Benjamin Franklin Elementary Foundation first broke ground to replace concrete-covered playgrounds with native flowers, plants and trees. Now, the campus thrives with milkweed, lavender and nasturtium sprouting alongside various wildflowers that assist hummingbirds, bees and butterflies in propagating blooms around campus.
Benjamin Franklin Elementary School Foundation and John Muir Elementary School Foundation, both groups composed of parent volunteers, teachers, administrators and community members, organized funding efforts and connected to organizations such as Enrich L.A., nonprofits that assist schools in starting STEAM learning opportunities for students.
Both foundations fundraise and gather private donations and grants from the city, governments or nonprofits to fund activities the schools cannot afford on their own, such as music classes, art days, science fairs and Parents Night Out, among other activities. The garden is the latest campus project to receive an update, a recent grant from Cigna Health for $5,000, which allows Franklin Elementary to continue upkeep on the garden, like purchasing more trees for shade and new wooden planting boxes.
Parent and Franklin Foundation member Elizabeth Vitanza said that when plants of their own began to grow, the students came alive.
“They were getting super squirrelly. It was late morning, and then they come down [to the garden] and they get their clipboards, and they’re wandering around and touching things, they’re tasting things,” Vitanza said. She laughed at a memory of what one child said when they recognized parsley — “Oh, that’s what they put out in fancy restaurants!”
The kids, meanwhile, are able to explore their learning garden with the help of a certified garden instructor who teaches hands-on lessons about photosynthesis, plant life cycles and composting, just to name a few. Classes are rotated every six weeks at Franklin and every 10 weeks at Muir, through different grade levels each of rotation.
Students learn stewardship and community, and have the opportunity to engage with nature, said Roxana Castro, a 5th- and 6th-grade teacher for Franklin’s Spanish immersion program.
“Having this garden and the idea of interacting with nature, because we live in a city, is important for the students,” she said. “If they just went to the store, their understanding would be ‘when you eat this vegetable that’s where it comes from,’ so that becomes the narrative that they’ve built in their head. Where does food come from? From the store. And so the idea that food comes from the ground and you have to grow it, [it builds] a relationship you have with food. Even kids who don’t like the dirt, that comes from somewhere because they don’t have the experience with green spaces,” Castro explained.
Sophia Estrada, a 5th-grade student at Franklin, said she liked “learning what season we have to grow [the plants]” and “knowing that we had a hand in growing [them].”
Amani Senteza, also a 5th-grader at Franklin, enjoyed learning about the symbiotic relationships of plants in their garden.
“We learned you can take a leaf from an apple tree and plant it with a branch from a strawberry tree, and you can plant them together,” she said.
Excitement to try new things and learn more about how to grow the plants in their garden is what drives many of the kids’ learning. Some students, like Sarah Zakaryan, a 3rd-grader at Muir, have personal experiences with gardening that they can carry with them to school.
“When we had the garden with my family, we had peppers and cucumbers and we also planted flowers. It was fun and I really liked it, so when the garden started at school I was excited to do it with all my friends and my really nice teacher,” she said.
Sarah Zakaryan said the nasturtiums are her favorites because they remind her of home. “We would always try to plant flowers and there were always yellow flowers growing. The flowers remind me of all the times when I was little, I would pick up flowers to give to my mom,” she said.
Dayla Yapanagardo, a 2nd-grader at Muir, explained that the garden is special to her because it’s something she can get at school only.
“It’s a new experience for my life, and it has helped me grow,” she said.
Violet Reese, another Muir student, said she plans to have a garden in her house when she grows up. “This garden is fun, because there’s fresh stuff, and students can try it. Instead of doing it here, I can build one on my own.”
‘PLANTS ARE CREATURES, THEY’RE BABIES, THEY GROW UP’
Rowen Cox-Rubien, or “Ranger Rowen” to the kids at John Muir, began her journey with the garden by wanting to turn her passion for plants into lessons for children. Working for Enrich L.A., Cox-Rubien comes to Muir to give weekly lessons at the garden.
Students approach Cox-Rubien during their lunch and recess periods, asking to water the plants in the garden, or to ask a question about a bug they saw or a plant they’re caring for. With each student, Cox-Rubien takes her time, guiding them through their questions and their time with the plants.
“I want them to understand how much their lives are the way they are because of plants — all the food they eat, the products they use, the clothes they wear — plants are the reason. I try to give them a reverence for plants, to show them that plants are creatures, they’re babies, they grow up. You water and take care of them. You love them. You can talk to them.”
The spiritual and emotional connection to nature is an important addition to curriculum, said Cox-Rubien, because of the relationships it teaches children to form with themselves, their peers and their world.
“I lean toward a spiritual philosophy when I teach, so they aren’t just memorizing. I want them to emotionally connect to the garden because that lasts for a while. They always want to be in the garden. They are begging me to eat things from the garden. I try to cultivate a culture of the plants being their own person. And they get to see the plants grow with them.”
Senteza’s favorite plant at Franklin’s garden is the lemon leaf, a green bushy plant that tastes like lemonade when you bite into the crisp leaves. For Reese and Yapanagardo, the subtle spice and the bright orange-yellow glow of the nasturtium flowers is what brings them back to Muir’s garden during lunch.
Ranger Rowen often asks her pupils what the plants can teach them about themselves and the world around them. Some of the lessons are that “we can be slow and we can still succeed” or that “Plants are still, slow and calm, but they still are growing and things are happening when you can’t see,” she said.
“So I teach that just like the plants, in every one of us there are things happening that you can’t see but we’ll grow into something beautiful even if we don’t see it right now, or that there are certain plants that like to be planted near each other, they work together and help each other, and how when we’re around different people we need to help and work together. Everyone is unique and different. Nasturtium is spicy and unique, while celery is sweet and tastes good but grows slow.”
Teachers and parents at Muir expressed excitement for the ability to have a ranger who can teach the children about the plants and assist with integrating the curriculum. The ability to teach children in an outdoor space has been a huge benefit to science curriculum retention and application, said Raphael Ortiz, the Spanish dual immersion teacher for science at John Muir.
“This is a really good mix of what the standards are and what they are doing hands on. The fact they are able to play with dirt, play with plants and see them grow, these are visuals we don’t have in the classroom,” Oritz said.
Students are given field journals, where they record their lessons for the day and draw their interactions with the garden. Entries could be anything: a drawing of their favorite plants to smell that day, what bugs around the plants are considered “friends” and “foes,” and even classifying the bites on leaves or the poop they might see around the plants. One child drew pictures of leaves and took notes about natural oils that keep away harmful bugs. Another took notes on seed composition and soil structure.
Games and harvest parties are incorporated at the end of each session with the Muir students, so they can see the results of their gardening. A scavenger hunt and flower bracelet decorations were popular with the kids, as well as the sandwiches they made using chard and chives grown in the garden.
“As a teacher, you’re able to see a seed grow. If you’re a student, you’re talking to your friends about books, what’s your favorite plant, what’s the name of this plant. Now they’re going home and asking for mint in their tea. To see something that was not there, and see it grow. That’s what my students have, and you can’t compete with that,” said Oritz.
“We just felt like it was important for kids to have this hands-on experience,” said April Fulton, a parent and member of the Muir Foundation. They’ve never had that before, and it’s so exciting to see them learn. They’re learning through play.”
Students like Chloe Stanley, a 6th-grader from Franklin, are proud of the work they’ve done to bring the garden to life.
“We grew these plants. Some from seeds, some from saplings but we grew them,” she said. Libelle Handel, a 5th-grade student at Franklin, also chimed in.
“I think we should have a greener city,” she said. “It’s good to know all this was grown by us students.”
First published in the May 13 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.