In the tall grasses and blossoms at Prairie Elementary School’s prairie garden, cicadas sing and crickets seem to keep time in the late summer afternoon.
A team of educators listens, all the while reflecting on how a new outdoor garden will fit into a sustainability curriculum. They see this particular garden producing more than fruits, vegetables and other plants, they said.
The lessons it produces in sustainability, incorporating math, life sciences, engineering and even poetry will be invaluable, they said.
Principal Dean Kaminski learned last week that Prairie was one of five schools chosen to receive an $8,000 grant to participate in the 2013-14 Growing Outdoor Classrooms program.
Melissa Kietzman, a parent whose two daughters were in Deanna Schadeberg’s classes, along with Schadeberg, fourth-grade teacher Denise Farnsworth and Kaminski, applied for the grant earlier this year.
Schadeberg said she and Farnsworth had searched for ways to incorporate sustainability into their curriculum. They were deeply interested in the Denver Green School in Colorado, where the students grow their own food and learn about cooking.
“We talked about how great that would be,” Farnsworth said.
Farnsworth had noticed Sustain Dane’s monthly newsletter included an application for the GROW outdoor classroom grant. One of the requirements was to have a parent on the team, and Kietzman, a parent volunteer at the school’s butterfly garden during the summer months, seemed like the perfect choice.
Kietzman said the teachers had also created a Student Corps program, modeled slightly after AmeriCorp. Student Corps incorporated service projects with learning opportunities.
“I saw the enthusiasm their students had in Student Corps. A lot of students want that experience,” Kietzman said. “It’s very exciting for kids to have that outdoor opportunity to learn.”
Farnsworth said similar to Student Corps, the outdoor garden will include roles for all grade levels.
“Each grade level will have streams relevant to their grade area,” Farnsworth said.
The team is also required to involve the community and other staff, Schadeberg noted.
The project seems like a natural for the Waunakee community, with its farming heritage, they said.
“Waunakee is a farming community, but so many students have no idea what that means,” Schadeberg said.
“It brings us back our roots,” Kaminski said, wondering aloud if he had just coined a new motto for the elementary school.
"Prairie Elementary: Back to Our Roots,” he repeated.
The grant will fund training for the team, whose members are expected to grow as others in the district join in.
“Joe Bellomo is very excited about this,” Kaminski said about the district’s director of facilities. Taher, the district’s food service, could also be involved serving some of the vegetables produced, Kaminski said.
The teachers are eager for the staff development, noting it will help them teach to the new required standards with a sustainability emphasis. That emphasis will examine how the outdoor classroom and school fit into the larger world, Schadeberg said. That additional staff development is invaluable, she added.
“How can we learn in every area we are in?” Schadeberg asked. “It’s not just a garden, it’s a learning experience. It’s math, it’s literature, it’s science. “This is what’s exciting about it.”
The team will work on developing the garden and the curriculum throughout the winter, then begin digging during the spring and summer. They are eyeing various locations around the school for it.
“They do teach you how to budget. They teach you how to do it and how to do it right,” Schadeberg said.
They added that the community has expertise to contribute, as well.
“We have these things. We have a Schmidt’s Woods. We have a Schumacher Farm,” Farnsworth said.
The program is led by the GROW Coalition and Sustain Dane to promote outdoor learning and sustainability.
The GROW coalition’s steering committee includes six organizations: Community GroundWorks, Madison Metropolitan School District, Sustain Dane, Community Action Coalition, Health Forward Consulting and UW Extension. The program is receiving multi-year funding from the Madison Community Foundation.
Other schools chosen to participate include Lapham Elementary, Orchard Ridge Elementary, Sherman Middle School in Madison, and Marshall Early Learning Center in Marshall.