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Deep-Rooted Learning

From seed to plant to table, PDS students are learning about environmental stewardship and the interconnectivity of the world around them.

How do you start a garden? Plant a seed, nurture it and see what grows. That’s exactly what happened at Princeton Day School — only the seed grew into something much bigger than a garden.

Looking at the 100-or-so-square-foot plot today, with its dense masses of greenery, neat rows of raised beds, flowering native plants and arbor of trailing vines, there’s no sign that this growth took root in less-than-hospitable conditions. But a New Jersey master gardener took one look at the site and its hard-packed clay, which had been backfill for a new construction project, and declared that nothing would ever grow there.

It turns out, everything would grow there.

Armloads of wildflowers — passionfruit, poppies, fuzzy fuchsia celosia — herbs, esoteric vegetables like spinner gourds and kohlrabi, bamboo. But most significantly, the entire sustainability initiative, which, 14 years later, is part of the school’s core philosophy and curriculum.

That feat may have been even more difficult than coaxing bamboo to grow in rocky soil because it required fundamental systemic change. The kind of change that doesn’t happen as the result of a once-a-year plant sale or awareness day. From the beginning, the goal was to weave sustainability into the fabric of everyday life, to make it the default choice, the rule and not an exception. “If we’re going to leave our students the future we want them to have, sustainability has to become a part of everything,” says Jessica Clingman, the newly appointed director of sustainability and environmental education. “It’s in everybody’s interest for this movement to be as widespread as possible, and for people to see that everyone has a space in this work.”

Although sustainability has become a popular buzzword, it can still be a daunting concept, one that makes many people anxious, not enthusiastic. But Clingman sees an opportunity here. “Having a rigorous academic school like PDS embrace sustainability this way sets an example that all the things you associate with a highly competitive day school can coexist and flourish with sustainability,” she says. “We can lead others.”

A Grassroots Effort

The success of the sustainability initiative can be found more in what you don’t see on the grounds than what you do. For instance, in the cafeteria, which is run by FLIK Independent School Dining and only one of four independent schools nationwide that’s four-star certified by the Green Restaurant Association, you won’t find any single-use plastics. All cutlery is stainless steel, plastic straws are a thing of the past, the napkins are recycled and compostable and a yogurt bar with reusable bowls saves 10,000 containers from the landfill. Clingman also worked with FLIK on creating an iced coffee bar to avoid the scourge of food deliveries, and staff and students are encouraged to bring their own mugs.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single plastic water bottle on the grounds today — all water fountains have bottle-filling stations — but in 2005, they were standard issue at snack time in the Lower School, much to the dismay of English teacher and former sustainability coordinator Liz Cutler. So, she proposed a fun math project to the staff: Have their students count how many water bottles were used in a week. In a month. How far they would stretch if you laid them end to end. The project caught the attention of a local newspaper and eventually, the majority of single-use water bottles were eliminated.

This small victory got Cutler thinking about other ways she could work sustainability into the curriculum and into life at the school in general. She decided what they really needed was a garden. “My vision was that you can teach anything in a garden,” she says.

To raise literal seed money for the project, ceramics students made and sold coffee mugs, replacing disposable cups. The proceeds paid for fencing; everything else, including tools and labor, was donated by students, staff, faculty and families. It wasn’t a lack of funding so much as a deliberate effort on Cutler’s part to get buy-in from the community. She felt the garden would mean more to people if they had invested something in it, and envisioned a day “like an Amish barn raising” to kick it all off.

Things almost went off without a hitch, but the day before nearly 200 people were due to show up for the groundbreaking, Cutler got word that the fencing delivery had been delayed. She ended up driving to the supplier herself and wrestling the fencing into the back of the school truck.

In spite of those efforts, the garden wasn’t initially a success. The 24 raised beds quickly became weed gardens because no one understood how to use them, nor did they have the time for garden maintenance. The solution came in the form of Pam Flory, who taught one of the summer camp classes, and who was brought on as garden coordinator. With a dedicated person to run the garden, programming could finally begin. “Liz used to always say to me, ‘Your main goal when you have kids out here is to make them fall in love with nature,’” Flory says. “‘Because we save what we love.’”

It wasn’t a hard sell. Most kids loved being outside and experiencing their lessons in a hands-on way. “The first thing the kids get to do in the garden is taste whatever is available,” says Flory. She likes to show them how to pluck a leaf of lemon sorrel and another of stevia and wrap one inside the other to make what she calls “nature’s Sour Patch Kid.” The sweet-sour combo is always a hit.

Surprisingly, winter spinach is also popular. Flory says that’s because it’s also sweet, but something about young children clamoring for a bite of a leafy green speaks to the power of the garden. “Focusing on sensory experiences — tasting, touching, smelling — that’s the magic,” she says. The scent of lemon verbena, the buzz of bees, the feel of soil in their hands are all things even the most nature-shy kids came to love.

By design, students in the lower grades visit the garden weekly. One of the first projects every year is to dig up potatoes planted by students the previous spring. These will later be cooked and mashed as part of a lesson. In the spring, the class will plant a new crop for the following year’s incoming first graders.

It was decided early on that Flory would work with faculty members and create the garden curriculum to incorporate real projects that needed to happen in the garden, like harvesting and planting potatoes. A math class might be tasked with counting spinner gourds or identifying examples of the Golden Ratio in nature, for instance, while science students learn about a plant’s life cycle and history lessons incorporate ways people preserved food before refrigeration.

You Can Teach Anything in a Garden

Word quickly got around, and soon the older grades wanted to experience the garden, too. “There is nothing better than a little bit of positive peer pressure,” laughs Flory. Spanish classes planted a salsa garden. There’s also a rain garden and an African diaspora garden with okra and cowpeas. One student suggested a corn maze. “Kids always have the best ideas,” she says.

Flory attributes much of the garden’s success to the amount of agency that’s given to the students. “When you ask, ‘What is important to you right now and what do you want to do about it?,’ it’s so much more meaningful to them and makes them more likely to participate and follow through.”

Few of the projects that start in the garden stay there. Each year, the third grade collects seeds from the annuals and perennials and packages them in paper packets decorated with drawings they do in art class. Proceeds from the seed sale help fund the garden. This collaborative nature also extends to other local schools that get leftover seeds as donations.

The garden attracts plenty of bees, which helps the kids learn about pollination and, with the help of faculty member Aaron Schomburg, harvest honey to sell. There are also eggs from chickens, which are hatched each year by the first graders and kept in a pen outside the garden. Most are eventually given away, save for a fluffy white hen named Marshmallow to whom the kids became very attached. The chickens are also used to teach middle schoolers about sex education and that “reproduction is happening all around them, all the time,” says Flory. You really can teach anything in a garden.

With so much learning happening outside, it made sense to add an outdoor classroom. The covered space has WiFi and a chalkboard, and seating made by students out of reclaimed wood from trees that had come down during a storm. “It’s a great space to feel connected with nature as you learn,” says Clingman.

The seed was still growing. A retention basin was turned into a meadow, and a clay oven added for making pizza and roasting vegetables. While Flory did her best to extend the growing season — and students’ time in the garden — as much as possible with cold frames on all the raised beds, winter still proved a challenge. Students plant as late as they can into October, and then in November when the bee population has disappeared, they turn their efforts to composting.

But Flory saw an opportunity to teach great lessons on either side of the growing season with the addition of a greenhouse. There was one on the grounds, but it was small, old and in poor shape. It caught the eye of Eric Rempe, who was interviewing for a position as a ceramics teacher. “I was told they were going to tear it down and build a new one, and they were looking for a manager,” he recalls. Rempe, a lifelong gardening enthusiast, ended up with both jobs.

Though the greenhouse was originally conceived as a place to grow seedlings for the garden, Rempe had bigger plans. “The charge to me was to incorporate the greenhouse into as many different departments as possible,” he says.

He set about filling the 42-foot-long climate-controlled greenhouse with as wide a variety of botanical species as possible, representing different growing regions from around the world. At the start of the 2022 school year, there was both a vanilla planifolia, the tropical-dwelling orchid that produces the vanilla bean, and a cacao tree, which grows the alien-looking pods whose seeds are used to make chocolate. (While vanilla pollination is a bit more difficult, Lower School students did learn to make chocolate from scratch).

“When students care about these plants, that makes them care more about the environment these plants grow in,” Rempe says. “Making students care about the natural world is a big part of the definition of sustainability.”

Many of the plants are from Rempe’s personal collection, and he’ll swap in whatever’s blooming so visitors can enjoy them. There are air plants, which grow without soil, a spiral aloe that’s a great living example of the Fibonacci series, and cactus and other succulents that survive some of the harshest habitats in the world. Easily the most popular are the carnivorous plants like Venus flytraps and pitcher plants. “Kids love hearing about plants that eat bugs,” he says. “You’ll see their attention level goes through the roof when they’re holding something in their hands they’ve learned about in class.”

Though the greenhouse serves as a classroom for lessons about everything from hydroponics to terrariums, it’s also a place of respite for both students and staff. “There are countless studies you can cite about the health benefits of being around plants,” Rempe says. He will never forget the day a fourth grade student walked up after a class, wrapped her arms around his legs and thanked him profusely. “She was so joyful that she had been able to spend a half-hour there,” he recalls.

The greenhouse opens up to a courtyard, which underwent what Rempe calls a “TV show transformation” (done in part by architecture teacher David Burkett), and now has become a go-to spot for lunches, meetings or taking a tranquil break.

Growth Trends

Even with the addition of the greenhouse — or maybe because it piqued new interest from members of the staff about ways to use the garden — “There wasn’t enough Pam to go around,” Cutler recalls. She was planning to retire and her parting wish was to see the sustainability role she carved out become a full-time position. So, PDS hired Jessica Clingman, a veteran science teacher and environmental advocate.

Clingman's vision is to use experiential learning to reinforce the principles that have become so core to the school and make sure the seedlings of change continue to grow. But tending to that is a special effort; watering is one of the hardest jobs in the garden. Luckily, she lets her passion drive her.

“There is nothing that sustainability doesn’t touch,” Clingman says. “And we are in this unique place, surrounded by experts and people who care. We have such potential for these students to not only learn about the work being done, but to experience it.”

And they have. In the garden. In the cafeteria, where FLIK offers vegan options daily and regular “low-impact” lunches that don’t require turning on any appliances to teach kids about the energy required to cook. In the parking lot, where a no-car-idling policy inspired car magnets that say “Panthers Don’t Idle.” At pep rallies, which are balloon-free and offer reusable water bottles.

“We’ve been sold the idea that disposable is great,” says Clingman. Unlearning that doesn’t happen overnight, and change has to come from more than one place. “If there was just one solution to sustainability, we would fix it,” she says. “We need everybody. These kids are going to be living in a different world than we were all growing up in, and we have to give them the skills to deal with it, and the optimism and resiliency to feel they are capable of making change in the world.”

The latter is also key to combating eco-anxiety, which is on the rise, especially in youth. To that end, sustainability initiatives grow with the student. Elementary-age children start in the garden learning about compost; as they get older, they’ll dive into climate change.

The school has a number of programs that focus on climate change and related issues, including EnAct, a student-run environmental club that has been around since the late 1980s; and two groups students can apply to join that help them learn about environmental issues and engage with experts on the subjects: Energy Climate Scholars, and the brand new Climate Corps.

Knowing that other people, including fellow students and trusted adults, care about these issues, can help kids deal with eco-anxiety, says Clingman, as can having ways to take action. EnAct, for instance, shares responsibility for hosting the annual Fall Harvest Festival, arranges conferences on energy and climate, and has had Fridays for the Future awareness marches. Kids in the Energy Climate Scholars program meet with local climate experts, scientists and nonprofit leaders to discuss environmental issues.

Right now, Clingman is focused on documenting the existing sustainability measures so that the program can be adopted by anyone, anywhere. But she is also looking ahead. By spearheading the new Climate Action Plan Steering Committee, Clingman says carbon neutrality at PDS is “definitely something we are striving for in the future.”

She doesn’t doubt that these goals are achievable, particularly with the strong support from school officials. “There is a deep commitment from the administration for this program to continue and expand,” she says. “Almost every time I ask whether we can start a new initiative or expand a program, the answer is yes.”

Key to all those efforts, though, is changing attitudes about what sustainability is, and what it can be. “A lot of people associate sustainability with the end of fun,” Clingman says. “But to me, it just means the fun can last forever.”

 - Words by Jill Waldbieser

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