Metro Catholic Garden Featured

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Children blossom in their garden

By Julie Washington, The Plain Dealer - June 19, 2013

The Sr. Ann Michael Learning Garden was dedicated
on April 23, 2013.

At Cleveland's Metro Catholic School, the biggest lessons are learned while digging in the soil.

The school, about 500 students in preschool through grade 8, has a mission to offer its urban students safe outdoor spaces, such as its Peace Garden of native Ohio wildflowers. Metro recently expanded that mission by creating the Learning Garden on a nearby vacant property and letting students decide what to plant.

"Gardens are cooperative ventures," said Sister Mary Jane Vovk, the school's director of religious formation. "They reflect how we need to work together to be successful."

The Learning Garden was alive with children's laughter when I visited Metro's main campus on West 54th Street near St. Stephen Church about a week before the end of school. A class was having a birthday party for a classmate, and kids were enjoying the sunshine and the feeling of grass under their tennis shoes. Dogwood trees were still festooned with fluttering ribbons from a garden dedication ceremony in April.

The Learning Garden demonstrates how we can transform urban blight into a community asset. The Cuyahoga Land Bank bought the abandoned property, demolished the house and transferred the 3,400-square-foot plot to Metro Catholic. Now the former eyesore is green space with an outdoor stage, storage shed, gardens and rain barrels.

"It's part of the dream for our school -- to grow food, grow children, grow spirits and beautify our neighborhood," Vovk said.

Eight homerooms have their own garden bed, and students choose the mix of flowers and vegetables they want to plant. Tomatoes, lettuce, pansies and Johnny-jump-ups are popular. Kids are allowed to take plants home over the summer. In the fall, returning students may plant pumpkins, pizza gardens of tomatoes, basil and oregano, or scented flowers in the school colors of blue and white, Vovk said. An annual plant sale raises money for gardening supplies.

Fourteen donated rain barrels were lined up on a wood platform near the garden. Together, the barrels can hold up to 700 gallons of rainwater, said Michael Shivey, a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher and a garden organizer.

Teachers warn the kids that if they don't care for the gardens, the plants will die, but motivation isn't a problem. Youngsters who have never worked with a wheelbarrow beg to shovel more mulch, Shivey said. Ironically, the class clowns are the biggest garden helpers. "They give me more effort," he said.

Shivey introduced me to two enthusiastic Metro gardeners, Olivia Jarrell, 13, and her friend Jadalise Pacheco, 12. Both girls will be eighth-graders in the fall.

My student guides knew why rain barrels are beneficial. "It saves money," Jadalise said, who enjoys having reading class in the garden.

Olivia remembered taking a test in the garden. Did the fresh air help her think of the right answers? "It kinda did help," Olivia said with a shy smile.

Students involved in the garden project are learning more than facts for a test. They learn respect for life and for one another, how to work together and the answer to some of life's mysteries -- such as how seeds work, Vovk said.

Some vegetables are allowed to go to seed so that children can see the entire life cycle. They were amazed to find plants producing the same seeds that they planted months earlier. "The boy who discovered that had never thought of that before," Vovk said. "They are in awe and wonder that something that looked like nothing suddenly came to life."

Vovk envisions the Learning Garden changing and growing every year. Trellises for vertical crops and a meadow of native grasses would be nice, she said, but some parts will remain plain old grass for kids to enjoy. Future gardeners will be able to grow seeds in a recently refurbished greenhouse nearby.

"The possibilities are endless. It's brought a lot of joy to us," she said.

As my time at Metro Catholic drew to a close, Vovk and I strolled through St. Stephen Church's meditation garden, which is near the Metro School campus. Its large-leafed hostas, restful shade and reflection pool filled with large fish made you never want to leave.

Students are allowed to enjoy it quietly under the watchful eyes of their teachers. "This is a little heaven in the middle of all the problems they see," Vovk said.

Amen to that.