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This morning's mini-lesson on the reproductive cycle of mushrooms gets off to a bit of a sluggish start, the most vigorous student contribution an "Eww, that's disgusting!" from one of the girls as an oyster mushroom gets passed around. But then the jobs get divvied up and suddenly even the kids with the "too-cool-for-school" vibe shake it off. As the kids get to work, there's a buzz of excited chatter (about a disgusting spider someone had seen, about a teacher that everyone likes or doesn't like), but they're also doing everything they're supposed to do — digging, trimming, or whatever.
Part of what makes these classes fun for the kids seems obvious — the students are outdoors, they're allowed to talk, and their scruffy-jeans-clad garden teachers are young and energetic and sufficiently hip. They're not going to have to take a test on the day's lesson. But beyond all this, for some of the students there does actually seem to be, at times, a genuine sense of wonder and adventure.
"Look at all the rocks we found," exclaims one boisterous Asian-American kid, part of a group of students helping to redesign an unused section of the garden. The boy stabs his shovel into the earth, then strains to lift up a large chunk of rubble so that everyone can see. He does a proud little strut. "This is history!"
History indeed. As the story goes, back in 1994 Alice Waters made an offhand comment to a reporter about how blighted the school grounds at King looked, having passed the school regularly during her walks from nearby Chez Panisse. When Neil Smith, the principal at the school at that time, read what Waters had said, he decided to contact her and see if she'd be willing to help improve the situation. The Edible Schoolyard was born out of that conversation.
But, as program director Marsha Guerrero explains, "Gardens take a long time. They don't happen overnight. We started with broken asphalt."
Planning for the new project began in earnest in 1995. By the year after that the first groups of students had begun working in the garden, and from there both the physical garden and the program as a whole gradually expanded.
Now, the one-acre "interactive garden classroom," as the program's web site describes it, is one of the prettier plots of land you'll find in North Berkeley, with its lush-even-in-winter greenery, hand-painted signs, and view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. The Edible Schoolyard has garnered national acclaim, as educators from all over the country visit the site each month, hoping to emulate it in their own respective cities — in 2006 the Chez Panisse Foundation even launched an affiliate program in New Orleans. And certainly in the Bay Area, the idea of school gardens has become increasingly popular, in large part due to the influence of Waters and the Edible Schoolyard.
In a certain sense, the prestige of the program and the larger-than-life personality of Waters herself made the Edible Schoolyard the perfect target for Flanagan, who has made a career for herself as a contrarian and a killer of sacred cows. Here in the Bay Area, there was no shortage of responses to the Atlantic piece after it was published. An editor at SFoodie quickly dubbed Flanagan "the Sarah Palin of food politics," and there was a flurry of retorts posted on various eco- and Slow Food-friendly web sites, most of which dismissed her claims outright. One particularly strident commenter on an article on Grist.org said that she would, in fact, rather raise up a generation of math-ignorant gardeners than math experts who don't care about agriculture. Even taken in context, this seems faintly ridiculous.
The truth of the matter is that California is in a crisis right now with its failure to equip so many of its students with the basic skills that they'll need to go on to college and become successful members of society. Though some educators may question the extent to which standardized test scores are the best measure of a student's abilities, there's still no getting around this undeniable fact — and the statistics for the state's African-American and Latino students are especially grim.
King isn't one of the most egregious examples in the Bay Area, but it certainly is no exception either. According to the school's 2009 STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) results, 26 percent of the school's African-American students tested at the proficient level or higher for English language arts, and only 17 percent were proficient in mathematics. The numbers for the school's Hispanic population aren't much better: 30 percent and 28 percent tested to be at least proficient in English language arts and mathematics, respectively. All of these numbers fall below the state average and lag far behind the school's white students — 87 percent and 77 percent of whom scored at least at the proficient level in language arts and math, respectively — and its Asian students, of whom 51 percent attained proficiency in language arts and 49 percent in math.
"Here is the essential question we must ask about the school gardens," Flanagan says. "What evidence do we have that participation in one of these programs — so enthusiastically supported, so uncritically championed — improves a child's chances of doing well on the state tests that will determine his or her future?"
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