The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights hopes to change that for its students. The evolution of the school's Greenhouse and Agricultural Program indicates the growing importance of nature and farming in the urban student’s learning process.
The program began as an architectural project for students, explained school administrator Peggy Heaney.
“The kids had to design spatially, so they had to learn how to measure and they actually put it together themselves,” she said.
Science teacher Rhiad Etheridge uses the greenhouse as part of an agricultural program for his high school students. He used his experience from working on a sugar plantation in Guyana to create a curriculum that is offered to eleventh and twelfth graders.
The greenhouse created by students was a smaller structure that stood on the roof of the building of the school for 12 years until it eventually collapsed due to severe winter weather conditions, including heavy snow and ice.
“We couldn’t get the door open there was so much snow and ice up against it,” said Heaney. “We couldn’t get out here to try to and clear off the roof so it cracked. It just imploded on itself.
“I wanted to get it put back up before the summer programs started but I couldn’t,” she added. “I just couldn’t pull the workers together and the funding and everything before the summer started. Now that the older kids are back in school, they are also helping to put everything back in place.”
The grant that helped to rebuild the greenhouse and create the programs has one more year, then the school will be looking for funding again.
This program was beneficial for learning purposes throughout the school year, but during the summer the progress of the garden would face a setback due to a lack of attention and care.
“It would break my heart in the summer because no one was here and everything would die,” Heaney said. “Assemblyman Francisco Moya was on the Agriculture Committee and he was very impressed with what we had going on here, so he gave us some grant money to start a summer camp.”
Renaissance School now partners with an organization called Beyond Organic Design, whose mission is to “offer a powerful lens that enables students to see the world’s interconnectivity, grounding them in a more ethical way of living through permaculture, a design philosophy that teaches us people are not separate from nature.”
With their partnering and larger space, the school plans on harvesting seasonal vegetables and using them to serve in the cafeteria, as well for use in culinary programs.
The next step for this program is for the school to team up with other surrounding charter schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx and apply for a grant.
“We are trying to form a consortium and apply for a grant coming out now called Farm to School to help to support schools to investigate the possibility of gardens,” Heaney said. “We already have one so we could be the leader in this and set an example.”
“I think it excites our kids,” added Principal Stacey Gauthier. “Our mission is sustainability and global awareness, so one small little greenhouse rooftop garden is really supporting many of the bigger initiatives for the school. I can’t wait to see what we keep doing.”