Elementary students, teachers, local residents and university students have all collaborated on the garden that serves as a bright spot to everyone involved.
“There’s nothing more amazing than watching children in the garden,” said former JB Wright Elementary principal Maria Marin.
The school’s garden program includes a “mini-orchard,” a greenhouse, a raisedbed garden and a desert tortoise habitat.
Crops at the garden include carrots, onions, bok choy and multiple citrus trees. Their greenhouse is able to grow plants from seeds to seedlings, and JBW is even working to trade seedlings with other school garden programs in the Tucson Unified School District.
In 2010, Marin launched the school’s STEM program with a small garden. Students were able to plant seeds, observe the growth and develop basic gardening skills. However, a family tragedy catalyzed the program into something much larger. Two years into building the program, Marin’s son was killed while serving with the Marines in Afghanistan. “It was a difficult time,” Marin said. “But we wanted to bring community support together and build a heroes garden.” So with the help of community members and staff, the garden program grew. Private company AAA Landscaping collaborated with third graders to create the design and layout, while Sundt Construction donated the concrete garden bed. By summer 2012, the harvest was in full swing.
“We wanted to recognize all of the lost heroes,” Marin said. “And this can also be a place for kids to come and grow and learn."
For the last decade, the garden has boosted the community by inspiring kids to learn while providing social and emotional benefits. Wright teachers bring their students outside for hands-on learning and early exposure to STEM fields as they work together cultivating the soil and caring for the crops.
“It’s really important to expose our students to learning that was not just content enriching, but improving quality of life,” Marin said. “From farm to table, we help our students learn about healthy eating and the impact it has on healthy brains... It gives the students empowerment and agency. They learn a concept, get to apply it, and observe the outcome.”
Students also developed critical questioning skills and a “sense of wonder.” Marin has seen how they compete to grow the tallest bean sprout or the biggest leaf and notice how plants change.
Marin said teachers allow their students to explore on their own, slowly becoming self-managing learners. As a result, Marin noticed increased attendance and a decreased discipline rate.
“They were more excited about their learning and it was more meaningful,” Marin said. “They get to be outside in the fresh air, looking at these beautiful plants, instead of sitting behind a desk.”
The students get to reap the benefits of their own hard work, too. Once their harvest is fully grown, the crops go to the school cafeteria, or straight home with the grade-level students. “Recently, students made a traditional recipe for Chinese New Year with produce that we’ve harvested,” said Moses Thompson, director of the University of Arizona’s Community & School Garden Program. “All the kids got a salad that they made in their own garden.”
With the help of the UA Community & School Garden Program, the Wright garden feeds around 90 families a year.
Through the program, UA students work alongside the K-12 children for six to 12 hours per week. The UA students experience professional development in the ecology program while earning internship credit. They are responsible for maintaining the gardens, working on the harvest, and providing some educational services to the Wright students.
“It’s an inspiring place to work and connect with the garden,” Thompson said. “I really love that school and I really love that community.”
Thanks to Tucson’s climate, the garden produces harvest year-round. Different crops are planted in different seasons, depending on the temperature.
“Since the warm season is coming up, we are planning to plant new crops at the end of this month,” Thompson said. “And it somewhat slows down from March to the end of the school year.”
The summer harvest months, when the students aren’t in school, depend on scheduling. The school typically plans the planting seasons around seeds that will grow into harvest by the end of May. But Marin says they can still grow crops even when it’s hot and kids aren’t in school.
During the pandemic, students were still able to work in the gardens while remaining socially distanced.
The Wright garden has not only provided food for local families, but has allowed teachers and students to connect with the natural world through their learning experiences.
“Once the students come outside, their whole demeanor changes,” said Wright principal Deanna Campos in a TUSD video. “It’s uplifting. They’re like, ‘Wow, this is great.’ They’re peaceful, and you can see it right away as soon as they come into the courtyard.”