On a warm September day, as her students returned from the long summer recess, Williamsburg Prep science teacher Juliet Crupi animatedly described her plans for an Urban Farming class she was launching with fellow Prep teacher Jessica McClish. She envisaged its first projects, a hydroponic indoor garden that would replace dusty, old chemistry sets and a community garden that would rise on an unused lot adjacent to the school.
This week, on a rainy Monday afternoon, with summer vacation just days away, the clouds parted just in time for the teachers and students to cut the ribbon for “The Cardinal Garden,” on the corner of North 6th and Havemeyer Streets, and to show the community, for the first time, the fruits…and vegetables of their labors.
In a fifth floor classroom, rows of kale, lettuce and carrots grew in the hydroponic garden, some destined for local dinner plates, the rest for the community garden, where they will grow alongside cherry tomatoes, white onions, jalapeno and cayenne peppers, tarragon, thyme, parsley, fennel, bee balm, daylily, Echinacea, sedum, yarrow and lavender.
“It makes me excited to see how an idea I had written on paper two years ago made itself physically present here at Williamsburg Prep,” Crupi said. “The urban farming students, staff, families and administration came together as a community to make the school more green. As a science teacher, it makes it worthwhile to know that students can use science as a tool for a helping their communities.”
Almost as organic as the growth of the garden, named for the Van Arsdale Campus’ mascot, is the development of the program, which stemmed from a 2012 research project Crupi participated in at Grand Teton National Park. It occurred to her, during that trip, that she could more effectively teach her students by showing them how their lessons directly impact their community. Upon her return, she partnered with McClish, and the two created a Leaders for Sustainability club at the high school.
Initially eight students signed up for the club, which by year’s end had swelled to more than 40. Recognizing its success, Principal Mike Shadrick agreed to convert the club into the Urban Farming class for the 2013-14 school year, with nearly 50 students taking part.
“Seeing the Cardinal Garden go from a discussion we had with our “Leaders for Sustainability” club to buckets of tomatoes and peppers last spring, to a five-bed garden containing onions, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, pollinator plants and a compost bin this spring has been an amazing experience, McClish said. “I learned a lot about gardening in the process and a lot about action learning from Juliet. I love that our students get to work with their hands to produce something that they can be proud of.”
The gardens were funded through grants from the Citizens Committee for NY and the Walentas Family Foundation. A non-profit, Grow to Learn NYC, donated lumber, nails and 200 cubic feet of soil-compost mixture, as well as the expertise to teach the teachers how to build planters and maintain the garden.
In addition to developing the gardens, in the past year, two of Crupi’s and McClish’s students were invited to attend the Student Congress for Climate Change and Conservation in Washington, DC and six club members were selected to meet legendary conservationist Jane Goodall at the United Nation’s Celebration of Peace.
Next year, the teachers look to expand their Urban Farming class, offering students lessons in how to make healthy eating affordable and accessible to others. Students will examine how food is brought into their communities and develop alternative distribution models to meet the needs of residents.