Alternative school thrives with a little community help

The saying is “It takes a village to raise a child.” In the South Whidbey School District, that is being proven true.

The saying is “It takes a village to raise a child.”

In the South Whidbey School District, that is being proven true.

South Whidbey Academy, the district’s new K-12 alternative school with 65 students, was highlighted by the superintendent and the school’s director for utilizing partnership programs to educate students. Many of the examples were elective activities — dance, drama, choir, physical education — which have been reduced throughout the district.

“Our program and students benefit from community participation and we encourage others to contact us as we continue to grow learning partnerships,” wrote David Pfeiffer, the academy’s director, in the superintendent’s weekly online update.

One project, however, has persisted and may soon increase. There is a lot of space at the alternative school’s new location at the former South Whidbey Primary Campus on Maxwelton Road, both inside and outside the building. Beyond the walls and classrooms is where Pfeiffer, Superintendent Jo Moccia and the Good Cheer Food Bank see plenty of potential.

Building a new garden on the field behind the school was proposed and briefly discussed by Moccia at a school board meeting this summer. Both the school district and the nonprofit food bank want the garden, and plans have been made for the dimensions and upkeep of the 25-foot-by-150-foot plot. The only thing left is money to pay for the program, which Pfeiffer and the district are pursuing through grant applications such as the recently awarded Tulalip Tribes Foundation grant.

“It’s very exciting, but it’s not an official program yet,” said Good Cheer garden coordinator Cary Peterson. “It’s not an official partnership; there isn’t any money yet.”

“We’re in the awkward stage now where the momentum is there and the funding has to catch up.”

Since 2009, Peterson has overseen the management of gardens at two of South Whidbey’s schools. The oldest school garden is at Langley Middle School, and the largest was at Bayview School, which housed the alternative high school until this year. Students at Bayview School helped till soil, plant small crops, care for the seedlings and harvest the crop with the assistance of Good Cheer apprentices like Bobby Cressman and Allie Urbanek.

“Planting something from a seed, watching it grow and then bringing it to the food bank, there are so many vectors of learning in that,” Peterson said.

“It’s all student based. Every step of the way will be coordinated by an apprentice in our community garden leader training. But it’s all the students doing the work.”

The proposed but not-yet-approved garden could field 24 beds and would include a greenhouse. Students in the academy’s middle school Discovery Program measured the plot and divided the rows and pathways. Projects like this garden are ideal for the district’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) goals, as well as its “green” and sustainability focus this year. Pfeiffer called the garden project a “learning laboratory” where students can learn science, sustainability and health. Produce grown from the school gardens goes to the food bank in Bayview.

“It’s more than the food that we get, it’s the connection with the students,” said Good Cheer Executive Director Kathy McLaughlin-McCabe.

“If we are teaching our children in our community how to grow, how to eat healthy, then we are getting closer to a truly hunger-free community.”

Long before the grassy area can be turned into a fertile patch of vegetables and fruits, the ground itself will need a transformation. Peterson said the dirt there is sandy and would require a process of growing nutrient-rich soil in the first few years. In the meantime, the school and garden-keepers have to pick plants that are less nutrient demanding.

“That’s a powerful learning experience to see how soil is created,” Peterson said. “Essentially, life on the planet is dependent on the soil that nurtures us.”