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Chester County Press

Patton garden projects get national attention

09/29/2016 12:24PM ● By J. Chambless

From left: Kimberly Hiser and Betsy Ballard started the Patton Garden Project. At right is Phoebe Kitson of the Chester County Food Bank.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Learning and growing doesn't happen just inside Patton Middle School. There are plenty of places on the school grounds where students are learning about growing food and taking care of the environment. On the morning of Sept. 28, the school got some state and national attention during a tour of the greenhouses and outdoor learning spaces.

As part of the U.S. Department of Education's “Real World Learning” 2016 Green Strides Tour, the school hosted Andrea Suarez Falken, director of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools; and David Bauman, the director of Pennsylvania Green Ribbon Schools for the state Department of Education. Along with the special guests were school officials, teachers, school board members, and some of the students who make the school's innovative projects run.

Patton is a designated Green Ribbon School, and principal Tim Hoffman greeted the crowd at the beginning of an hour-long tour of the school grounds. It was the first of four regional schools on the schedule that day for Falken and Bauman.

“As you're going to see during the next hour, this really is a complete community project,” Hoffman said. “Our application for the Green Schools program and our Green Ribbon really started with partnerships within our building, with our community partnerships, and our community in general. You'll see how we work with our community and how we integrate that into our curriculum.”

District superintendent John Sanville said, “The Patton Garden Project is an example of all that is right and good in education today. It's the partnership with the community, it's the energy of the students here, and it's what happens when you have people who have great ideas.”

Marie Wickersham, the director of food services in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, said that when family and consumer science teachers Betsy Ballard and Kimberly Hisler first proposed the Patton Garden Project in 2010, there was muted enthusiasm. “But I agree with their idea,” Wickersham said. “Food doesn't magically appear on the table every day. Part of the idea was to teach students that it actually grows in the ground, and it has to be prepared and harvested. We get lettuce that is produced in this garden and we use it in our lunch program. It's a whole community and school effort to get the kids to understand that buying local, or producing things yourself, is a good thing for your health and for the community.”

Ballard welcomed former Patton principal Bruce Vosburgh to the tour, saying that, “without Bruce's support from the very start, none of this would have been possible.”

During the walk to the Patton greenhouses, Falken explained, “This tour started yesterday in Philadelphia, and we'll continue tomorrow. This tour of Pennsylvania is the 18th state on the tour. In 2013, we did 11 states. In 2014, six states, and this year we're just doing one. We're pleased to be here to celebrate the work of Patton, which is the aim of the award that I run – the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools. The idea of the award is to bring attention to schools that are doing great work in reducing environmental impact and costs, improving health and wellness, and teaching sustainability. The idea of the tour is to go out and visit our honorees and spotlight them.”

One of the the two greenhouses, located down a long pathway from the school building, is almost completely automated, powered by solar panels and monitored by sensors that relay information about moisture levels and temperature back to the school. Screens over the top of the greenhouses can be remotely raised or lowered, and dampers can be opened, to change the temperature as necessary. The growing beds can be watered automatically when sensors indicate that the beds are dry.

The project was funded and guided by local electrical solutions company Tri-M, but student labor makes it run, including the compost bins that were built as an Eagle Scout project by student C.J. McClure, who was on the tour and explained how students built the cypress wood bins.

Joel Smith of Tri-M explained that, “I was asked about six months ago to round up a team of young engineers within Tri-M to find a way to give back to the community. I had an idea that Patton's right down the road from us, and the Chester County Food Bank was receiving food from the greenhouses, so I thought it would be a neat project to do something with that.

“One of the problems was all the labor that was required to run these greenhouses. So I came back to our young engineers and said, 'I think we can do some automation here.' Now we have a greenhouse that's fully automated.”

After a walk across a meadow and into a wooded area, Hoffman stood in the Howard T. Smith Outdoor Learning Center, an outdoor classroom with bench seating and a desk that is used for classes studying nature and conservation.

“We have two partnerships here -- one that's new, with the American Chestnut Project, and with Stroud Water Research,” Hoffman said, introducing Ryan Ragland, a sixth-grade science teacher at Patton. The wooded site will soon be part of a project to re-grow American Chestnut trees, he said.

“American Chestnuts were really the backbone of our country,” Ragland said. “They were used for everything from log cabins to furniture. But around 1904, we had some variants brought in from Asia that brought a blight. The American Chestnut from then until 1960 basically disappeared. … We'll work with the American Chestnut Organization on a hybridization, combining an Asiatic and American Chestnut that have a resistance to the blight. In November, we're going to get 100 seeds to send out to our elementary schools so they can get them started and growing. We'll plant all 100 here. At that point, it will become an exercise in actual scientific study to look at mortality rates and growth rates, and hopefully extend the project up to the high school. We're really excited to have this program, and it's really on the cutting edge of what science has to offer.”

Back at the school building, the group heard about the Patton Garden Project, which began in 2010 and has turned a patch of grass near the parking lot into a vibrant growing area where the vegetables are grown in beds, harvested by students and donated to the Chester County Food Bank.

Phoebe Kitson of the Food Bank said the goal is that “at least a third of the food we're distributing to over 150 agencies in Chester County is fresh food. And we want that food to be as locally grown as possible. This garden helps provide that for some of our agencies that are within driving distance of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District. Kennett Area Community Services gets the bulk from this garden. In the Kennett School District, they have about 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Their ability to access healthy food is a real challenge. This garden provides those low-income families with some tremendous food.”

Kitson said there are 600 raised growing beds at 150 sites in Chester County that provide food for needy families.

Ballard said that almost 20,000 pounds of food have been donated to the Kennett Area Food Cupboard and Safe Harbor in West Chester from the Patton garden. “Two weeks ago was our banner day – 175 pounds of fresh produce went to the food cupboard,” she said. “It was our biggest day ever. We've had so much support from our students and the community, and we couldn't do it without them.”

David Bauman, director of Green Ribbon Schools for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said he was impressed by all the projects at Patton.

“This is absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “My role is the state science advisor, and I'm just amazed at the connections you're making for the kids. So often, even adults don't make the connection from food to table. It just appears in the grocery store. So you're teaching incredible lessons with real-world connections. The integration of technology, life sciences and engineering – we could go on and on. I am so amazed. I will be contacting you in the future so you can show the way for other school districts. It doesn't get any better than this.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].