On a warm afternoon in August, Vice Principal Mike Ollo pulled weeds and tended to tomato plants, lovingly moving through a vibrant natural space that just a year ago, did not even exist. Today, cucumber vines tumble out of raised beds and native grasses sway in the breeze, as pollinator insects buzz through the air, creating a little microcosm of nature nestled amongst the concrete.
The community garden at School 2 in Paterson has become one of City Green’s greatest success stories. And the most successful thing about it is that School 2, not City Green, has been tending, maintaining and benefiting from this garden for the past four seasons.
“We've had students all year long that have been tending to their gardens,” said Mike Ollo. “We have a Zen garden for social-emotional downtime. And we also have a functional vegetable garden. And all of this was student created, student driven. With teacher assistance, of course.”
Mike tends to downplay the teacher assistance part. In reality, the thriving nature of School 2’s community garden comes down to a committed coalition of teachers and administrators who are deeply passionate about teaching, learning, and the well-being of their students.
“In September of 2022,” Mike explains, “we were no longer remote [because of the pandemic]. And we wanted to do something new. And one of those new projects was our gardens. I had three teachers in particular come to me and say, ‘I want to be part of the leadership team for those gardens.’ And those teachers worked hard all year long in building this. They went to weekend symposiums, they went to workshops, they studied under the tutelage of City Green staff... and they brought their desire to work with students.”
In fact, contacting City Green about supporting a new community garden was one of the very first things Mike Ollo did as Vice Principal. Through their Full Service Community Schools partnership with Oasis A Haven for Women and Children, School 2 was eligible to apply to City Green for a Dig In! grant. Dig In! is City Green’s community garden development initiative that supports the creation of vibrant community gardens and neighborhood farms in urban, suburban, and rural areas of Passaic County for the production of healthy food, neighborhood beautification, and community enhancement.
City Green provided Oasis and School 2 with $3,000 to build two community gardens at the school. They helped build the raised beds, and also provided teachers and administrators with the necessary training to nurture plants and vegetables in the new garden.
According to Liz, “The school is totally spearheading the administration and maintenance of the garden. They are very much running it. We worked with them to design the garden based on their vision, and installed it with our team. Then we did a big teaching training on things like school gardening through seasons, spring vs. summer crops, best practices for teaching in the garden. But really, it's their project.”
Liz explains that the goal of City Green’s Dig In! program is not to run a network of community gardens themselves, but to figure out how to set people up to be independent and empowered to maintain their own community gardens.
“We want to help folks do it themselves,” she said. “We’ve been really lucky that Mike Ollo was a very involved and passionate leader.”
Passion is definitely a quality that Vice Principal Ollo has in abundance. On a tour of School 2, Mike brought me through the vegetable gardens, then inside the school to show off a lovely greenhouse sitting on a terrace that will soon be put to use. We finished our tour at the Zen garden in the courtyard, designed to enhance sensory experience like smell and touch.
Students from kindergarten to 8th grade can benefit from the gardens during recess, and also during scheduled times coordinated by their teachers. Mike said he’s already noticed the benefits it’s had on the kids.
“I started teaching in 1984,” he said. “And I realized right away that if you connect a student's experience to what they're learning in the classroom, whether it's math, history, science… if you connect what they already know to what is being taught, the learning is better.”
Mike explained that many of his students come from immigrant families that have deep agricultural roots in their home countries.
"I love this school because the gardens here remind me of home before we came to America," said one grade 4 student.
The teachers have noticed the benfits as well. "My students are stimulated to learn and they are speaking the language of nutrition, planting, tending and ownership of the food product. They can relate and are learning that the country relies on vegetable planting as a profession,” said one teacher at School 2.
Of course, a community garden is only as good as the community around it. And community-building is where School 2 truly shines. In addition to the staff at City green, Mike Ollo wants to thank School 2’s principal Vanessa Serrano and Jessica Abreu, the full service community site coordinator.
Thanks to these administrators and the teaching staff who incorporate the garden into their curriculums, School 2’s students continue to enjoy everything the gardens have to offer. And the community is excited to keep building, tending, and nurturing. Ollo has plans to make full use of the greenhouse, install an attractive fence, and coordinate volunteers to paint a mural on the site.
“I like to see happy students and happy teachers,” Mike said. “Happy students learn better. And students who see the product of their hard work in the gardens are happy. That's my job, to create happy, healthy school cultures.”
Dig In! grants are available to eligible community groups and municipalities in Passaic County. Grants can be awarded for community gardens, habitat restoration gardens, tree plantings, and daffodil plantings. Learn more here.
By: Sam Anderson www.samanderson.nyc