09/14/08 — Reading, math ... and gardening

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Reading, math ... and gardening

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on September 14, 2008 10:55 AM

Dillard Academy charter school's garden started as an after-school program project.

Then, the harvest came in.

Surrounded by bushels of every type of vegetable, the school's staff wondered -- what now?

That's when teacher's assistant Ida Hook came up with an idea.

"I know how to do canning," she said.

And a new food line was born.

The labels read: "Castles, 21st Century Community Learning Center, fresh from the student garden" -- and what was just an after-school project has now become part of the school's regular curriculum.

The children are still selling their canned goods and raising more vegetables to can this fall, said Danielle Baptiste, Castles after-school program director.

It all started four years ago with a little plot that took up part of the garden at the First African Baptist Church on Harris Street.

Today, the young gardeners tend three plots that cover almost four acres -- two at Dillard Academy and the one at the church.

This summer, the 120-or-so gardeners raised cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, squash, green beans and potatoes.

When harvest time came, the students enlisted the help of their Foster Grandparents volunteers to help can the green beans, potatoes, squash and tomatoes.

They even made chow chow out of the bell peppers, cabbage and onions. Added to these ingredients were vinegar, sugar, celery seeds, dry mustard and a secret ingredient Mrs. Hook won't reveal.

Everybody's favorite is the chow chow, Mrs. Baptiste said.

"We made a chow chow so good that Cox Farms asked to distribute it," she said.

The youngsters even took the blueberries they have been growing and canned them for use in baked goods like pies and cobblers. They made dill strips and sweet pickles, and they canned corn and okra.

The students take their fresh produce and canned goods to the mini-farmer's market at the Wayne County Health Department on Wednesdays and sell from a tent outside the school on Fridays.

And they plan to continue their project year-round. Currently, the children are growing beans, field peas and pumpkins.

After the fall garden, the young gardeners will start preparing the soil for next season.

"And before we know it, spring will come, and we'll start it all over again," Mrs. Baptiste said. "And because the project integrates the garden and the academic work so well, Dillard Academy is adopting the garden into its school-year curriculum."

Castles is in its fourth year as a 21st Century Learning Center, and after this year, the federal money stops coming.

"That is why we are doing this -- to fund it," Mrs. Baptiste said.

Proceeds from the sale of produce and canned goods go back into the after-school program.

And the children and their teachers are committed to making it work.

Garden curriculum coordinator Cheryl Alston incorporates math, reading, science and social studies into the gardening and canning operation.

"They learned their canning weights and measurements and the difference between fruits and vegetables. The ones with seeds are really fruits," Mrs. Alston said.

Dillard Academy alumni are also part of the project -- 13 teenagers who have moved on to higher grades returned this summer to help work in the garden plots.

"Instead of sitting at home watching video games all summer, they came here to help with the gardening and canning," Mrs. Baptiste said. "It was good to have them, because of the chow chow. They could cut up the ingredients."

The children age out of the program when they reach 13.

Victoria Lee, 9, is one of the students who have learned a lot through their experience gardening and as young entrepreneurs.

She said she is going to continue working on the fall garden. She loves canning. Her favorites are cucumbers and potatoes. And she likes the sweet pickles, too.

"I like the cucumbers best," she said. "I like the tasting parties."