Melissa Spear, Mayor of Bridgeport Bill Finch, and Michelle Eckman at the School Garden Resource Center Conference

Melissa Spear, Mayor of Bridgeport Bill Finch, and Michelle Eckman at the first state-wide School Gardens Conference

By: Kate Bovarnick

As educators, policy makers, and students converged on the Beardsley Zoo on March 20th for Connecticut’s first state-wide school gardens conference, the organizers knew they were onto something. “There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the work we are doing,” said Jill Herbst, Program Manager of the CT School Garden Resource Center, a program of Common Ground. “I think there is a strong desire for this sort of educational approach, both inside the classroom and out in the community.”

Last November, as calls continued to stream in with interest for becoming involved with the School Garden Resource Center, it was clear that Connecticut was ready for a state-wide school gardens movement. In partnership with Connecticut Outdoor and Environmental Education Association (COEEA) Common Ground planned a conference to bring together environmental educators and school garden leaders from across the state.“The conference was really built around the idea that we want the School Garden Resource Center to be just that, a resource that connects people all over Connecticut,” explains Tiffany Torres, Common Ground’s FoodCorp Member.

More than 200 participants found common ground around the conference’s theme: Digging Into Diversity: Cultivating a Culturally Responsive Practice. “We really wanted to unite people from all over Connecticut and generate discussion and ideas about the importance and implementation of making the practice of environmental education more inclusive to a more diverse audience,” explained Michelle Eckman Director of Education at CT Audubon and COEEA Board Member.

The conference featured two keynote speakers: Akiima Price, an advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency and other national efforts to engage racially diverse and economically diverse communities, and Jerusha Klemper, Co-Founder of Food Corps. “The keynote speakers were so inspiring. The entire day there was really good energy and both Akiima and Jerusha really continued that spirit,” reflected Eckman.

State and city leaders including Bill Finch, Mayor of Bridgeport and John Frassinelli, Chair of Connecticut Food Policy Council & Director of Child Nutrition at the CT State Department of Education, joined in a panel discussion on how to build a policy environment that supports school gardens and environmental education.

Participants attended workshops ranging in subjects from ‘Science, Spanish, the Garden and Ecology’, ‘The Rottin’ Truth About Composting’, to ‘Building School Gardens: Collaboration and Key Players.’ Many of the workshops featured Common Ground teachers, staff and students. “Although all of the workshops were amazing, the highlight of my day w as the time I spent with three students from Common Ground. They were knowledgeable, personable and very articulate,” wrote one attendee, who participated in a workshop in which students in Common Ground’s School Gardens Resource Center crew demonstrated how to build raised hexagonal garden beds.

The momentum continues to build. “One of the things that stood out to me was how many people were still at the conference at the end of the day – there is usually such attrition,” said Eckman. The conference will hopefully become a yearly event as the reach of the School Garden Resource Center continues to grow.