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Reading, Writing and Replanting

Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard remains undaunted by skeptics.

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Flanagan claims that there are no studies that offer credible support for this position and, well, it appears that she may be right. Benjamin Eichorn is an assistant garden teacher with Edible Schoolyard who actually wrote his college thesis on the potential of school gardens to increase student academic achievement. But even he concedes that we're a long way off from seeing that kind of study come to fruition, what with the challenges of finding a large enough sample size and different schools that are close enough to being demographically identical. According to Eichorn, most of the evidence that exists that working in the garden has helped improve specific students' academic performance is strictly anecdotal — and even that anecdotal evidence has yet to be compiled in any kind of systematic way.

Nevertheless, Eichorn says plenty of studies have shown that hands-on learning that engages all of a student's senses is an effective approach to education — whether it takes place in the context of a garden or some other kind of project. In the four years that Eichorn has been with the program, he's become convinced that it really does work. What's more, he says, it's the kids who are emotionally or developmentally challenged who receive the greatest benefit from the kind of instruction offered at the Edible Schoolyard.

"Privileged kids, they've got access to terrific camps," Eichorn said. "They're going to the mountains to learn about nature that way. Kids that don't have access to that stuff, their world is really small ... and when I'm working with one to four kids in a special-ed class, I can reach them. I can bring learning to life for them."

For Flanagan, however, the test scores speak for themselves. She argues that the only logical response to the achievement gap is to strip away any program that isn't directly contributing to boosting those underperforming students' scores. What rationale would there be, then, for keeping the Edible Schoolyard when there's little evidence that it has been successful on that count?

Shaina Robbins, the program coordinator, says she would reframe the question: "Is art not important for a kid to have? Is gym not important for a kid to have? Is music not important? If you don't think those things are important, then I can totally see how you wouldn't feel like a garden and kitchen program would be important. Absolutely. But for me, and for every staff member in this program, we all feel like all of those things are of the utmost importance."

Robbins and other supporters of school gardens also point to the country's alarming rates of childhood obesity, with one in three children either overweight or obese — a public health crisis that Michelle Obama recently declared her top policy priority. Of course, the First Lady last year started a much-publicized vegetable garden on the White House lawn — a fact not lost on supporters of this movement. Indeed, it would appear that the potential to make some inroads on the eating habits of young adolescents might be reason enough for programs like the Edible Schoolyard to exist.

Like Robbins, the principal at King, Jason Lustig, stresses the Berkeley school district's emphasis on educating the "whole child," as opposed to worrying about those two subjects that are tested at the exclusion of everything else. If you were to take that position to its extreme, Lustig points out, you would have to drop not just the garden and kitchen program, but also science and history and any other subject that isn't tested specifically — an approach that he doesn't think has been effective for the schools that have implemented it.

"I think the drudgery, nationally, of having all of these schools, from the elementary level on, hammering English and math nonstop is really taking its toll," Lustig said. "You see it in the dropout numbers ... and I think it's a real misinterpretation of what we were trying to get at with the standards-based approach."

Flanagan's assumption is that, in order for the Edible Schoolyard program to exist, basic math and reading instruction must be sacrificed — a claim that Lustig adamantly denies. If anything, he says, because of the way the school bundles math and science together in a ninety-minute block, the only subject that ends up losing significant instructional time is science — again, a subject that's not actually reflected in the test scores that Flanagan cites.

King is actually in a rather unique position, given that its garden and kitchen program is entirely funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation. What this means is that any accusations that the money used to buy, say, a fancy wood-burning oven would be better spent on a new computer lab for the school are essentially moot — none of the school's own funds are spent to support the Edible Schoolyard. This makes the school more or less impervious to the attacks of critics like Flanagan, but also makes the program difficult to replicate in districts that lack such a well-funded benefactor.

Nevertheless, Lustig concedes that the school does need to take the task of boosting those scores seriously. It can't be content to simply offer students an incredible "educational experience" if the results, from an academic performance perspective, continue to be subpar. With that in mind, the school had already implemented a number of comprehensive changes designed to better support its weakest students — and did so well before Flanagan, who at no point contacted Lustig or the Edible Schoolyard staff, penned her attack. These changes range from revamping the master schedule in order to create room for a support period for students who are struggling, to increasing the number of internal, standards-based assessments that the students are given each year.

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