by: Elizabeth Ussher Groff, Judy Bluehorse talks about vegetables with Lane Middle School students in the Learning Gardens, while they listen and taste Chinese parsley--also known as cilantro. A grandparent volunteer stands at the left.

Where else but in Inner Southeast Portland can you find a multicultural garden where students, parents, grandparents and guardians can share food traditions, taste each other's vegetables, and form friendships--while getting dirty, and having fun?

The Learning Gardens Laboratory, across the street from Lane Middle School, is a vibrant project that is strengthening ties between a diverse group of students and their families and communities. While they are growing vegetables for Lane's cafeteria salad bar in the spring, students are learning skills in math, writing, sustainable agriculture, garden construction and cooperation.

The Learning Gardens are located on thirteen acres of property, which for 36 years was home to Portland Public School's Green Thumb Horticultural Magnet Program. In 2000, PPS sold 7-plus acres to Portland Parks and Recreation, keeping 5-plus acres that include the greenhouses.

The Birth of Learning Gardens

In 2004, Pramod Parajuli and Dilafruz Williams--PSU professors and co-founders of PSU's Portland International Initiative for Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning (PIIECL)--saw the potential for helping students from different cultures learn about food, nutrition, food culture, and sustainable agriculture.

Williams, who is also a School Board member, and Parajuli, were also driven by concerns of obesity, hunger, and closing the academic achievement gap.

'The goal of Learning Gardens is to teach PPS and PSU students to grow food that enhances sustainable and healthy food systems, through hands-on experiences of urban learning gardens--and in so doing, also promote multicultural competence and academic achievement,' Williams says.

In 2003, conversations about food-based ecology curriculum had already begun with PPS school principals. The FEED program (Food-based Ecological Education Design) at Lewis, Buckman and Edwards Schools started in 2003 and funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, was a further inspiration for creating the Learning Gardens.

Delicious Partnership Expands

What Parajuli has whimsically described as a 'delicious partnership between Portland Public Schools, the City, Portland State University, and gardens everywhere,' has expanded as vegetables are produced (5,000 pounds in 2006!) and the potential of the program is increasingly recognized.

Karl Logan, new Principal at Lane, is pleased with this multicultural, multidisciplinary program. 'The partnership we have established with Portland State University and the FEED program is a pillar in our school community. It is one we are proud of and one that we will continue to build. It allows us to engage our students in learning beyond the classroom walls,' he says.

The original partners--PSU, PPS, Portland Parks and Recreation, the Green Thumb Coalition and the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association--have been joined recently by Metro's Nature In Neighborhoods Project, plus funding from Comcast.

Chad Honl, former Neighborhood Trees manager for Friends of Trees, is in his second year of graduate studies in PSU's education program, and is a student teacher at Lane Middle School. He is also manager of the Learning Gardens Laboratory.

'We have great support here from the Principal and a lot of dedicated, wise, resource people working on programs that are designed to get parents re-invested in their children's education,' Honl says. 'Our goals are multidisciplinary, multicultural and multisensory.'

PSU students support teachers in classroom instruction at Lane, introducing students to different vegetables, growing techniques, and garden plot design. Students from Atkinson, Buckman, Chief Joseph, Lewis, Sunnyside Environmental, and Woodmere Schools are among those who come to the gardens to plant and learn. Parents and grandparents have a standing invitation to participate. Some families go on to create their own vegetable gardens at home. Other families receive vegetables from the garden plots.

Learning About Vegetables

On a cool but clear February day this year, Judy Bluehorse, Tuba Rodriguez, and Catie Pazandak--graduate students in PSU's PIIECL program--discussed the characteristics of different vegetables with students from Carla Oesterle's 6th grade Lane class.

The middle schoolers--always interested in food--learned the conditions necessary for growing spring and summer vegetables. Then they divided into three groups and walked across the street to the farm-sized garden.

After examining, tasting, and smelling native plants and trees, and learning about compost and soil enrichment, the students gathered in the warmth of the Green Thumb greenhouse to taste 'Oregon tea' (made from native plants), and to make raffia cords from cedar bark. Bluehorse, also a renowned herbalist and educator affiliated with the PPS Indian Education office, explained the customs of her ancestors--the Nez Perce, Chickasaw, and Cherokee--and told a story about gathering cedar bark.

The Learning Gardens are many things to many people. Tim Hahn, a retired PPS Buckman and Lane teacher who previously worked with PSU's FEED Program, is now a volunteer at Lane Middle School.

'People see a garden and think 'food',' he comments. 'I see this as a garden that welcomes community, where parents and students gather together to work with their hands and build friendships.'

For more information on the Learning Gardens Laboratory, and ecology-based learning, visit the Internet website:

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