September 2017
Youth Matters

A Place to Grow

Students cultivate lifelong lessons at Dawes Outdoor Learning Center.

 

Madison Hunter, a fifth-grader, welcomes visitors to Hawks Park.

As population increased in west Mobile County, the Mobile County Board of Education built Dawes Intermediate School in 2010 to cope with overcrowding. The new school housed students in the third through fifth grades. From the beginning, DIS has distinguished itself as one of the best in both Mobile County and the state of Alabama. For two years in a row, DIS has been named an Alabama Performance Excellence School. In 2016, the school was honored with the National Blue Ribbon Lighthouse School of Excellence Award, receiving an excellent in all nine categories. Then in 2017, Chasity Collier, a science teacher at DIS, was named Alabama’s Teacher of the Year.

DIS has won its share of awards and accolades, but it is the gardening program that has brought something really special to its students and the community. After surveying third-graders, the school discovered only 3 percent of its student body had ever grown anything in a garden. Even worse, most students thought their food grew on trees. A committee of parents, teachers and community members worked together to change these perceptions. The group decided that Dawes students needed an outdoor classroom focused on teaching students about healthy living, nutrition and food sustainability along with all their other subjects. The project would also give real-life experiences in local farming practices, organic gardening, recycling and environmental responsibility.

In 2012, DIS opened its Outdoor Learning Center, funded solely by donations, grants and funds raised by the school’s PTA that, by the way, had 100 percent participation. This beautiful facility, called Hawks Park, features an amphitheater with seating for 90, an outdoor kitchen, a SMART Board on wheels, a hot spot for community Wi-Fi, over 50 gardens with built-in sprinklers, a large barn with gardening tools, a composting center, bat houses, a GLOBE weather station, a hydroponics station, a greenhouse, and an adjoining field for both trees and fruit bushes. Craig Roberts, a local architect, donated his time to design the beautiful area, and hundreds of volunteers worked to make his drawings a reality.

The Mobile County Extension Office trained all the DIS teachers in the Alabama Junior Master Gardener Program and gave both materials and direct support. The school then set a yearly goal of 100 percent certification for its students.

Below, Dawes students help to prepare the garden plots by adding new soil and mulch. At right, students work in the gardens three times a week. 

 

At the beginning of each school year, teachers and staff are assigned a garden plot. Working in teams, students design the walls and perimeters around each growing area and help to choose the plants, many generously donated by Bonnie Plants. The students work in the gardens three times a week, growing a variety of foods, which are used in their classrooms. Local chefs volunteer to teach students how to use their produce and herbs to make healthy dishes and add flavor without additives. Students take their herbs home, along with a recipe they can prepare for their own families. The cafeteria staff also uses the fresh produce and herbs in many of the school’s meals. In addition, students enjoy in-class tastings, where they make salsa, salads, fried green tomatoes and many other favorites.

"We’ve gotten them to taste vegetables and foods they ordinarily would not have tried!" explained Michelle McClung, who has served as the first and only principal of DIS.

She is also the project’s greatest advocate and cheerleader.

 

Left, Principal Michelle McClung holds plants students will later use in the garden. Bonnie Plants generously donated some of these plants. Above, many different herbs are grown in Hawks Park. Chefs help students learn how to use the herbs to add flavor and variety to foods.

Plants have now become an integral part of the school’s environment, further connecting students to the outdoors. Students care for plants in each classroom to supply and circulate additional oxygen, making their inside environment even more energy efficient. Many parents have reported that their children also want plants in their own bedrooms to improve air quality at home.

DIS students practice regeneration and recycling. Fifth-graders compost the cafeteria’s leftover breakfast and lunch items to create soil and fertilizer for the gardens. Fourth-graders water, feed and groom the beautiful ferns hanging in the school’s portico. Both gardening and composting are considered health activities at DIS.

The Dawes Outdoor Learning Center has become much more than just an outdoor classroom, however. It is now a hub, bringing parents and community members to the school. Some come to pick vegetables in the gardens and fruits from trees and bushes growing in the large, adjoining field. Others come to volunteer, cleaning and preparing the gardens for use or helping in other ways. One Boy Scout earned his Eagle Badge by building a hydroponic garden inside Hawks Park. A local drone club now meets there. Students, as well as community members, use the community Wi-Fi in the spacious amphitheater, while others choose to relax or de-escalate in this peaceful area. Many enjoy the walking track and basketball court adjoining the gardens and often stroll through Hawks Park to check on the gardens.

The Outdoor Learning Center has indeed enhanced the educational experiences at Dawes Intermediate School. The hands-on, real-life activities have taken students outside to discover the joys of using local farming practices to grow their own healthy, organic food. Many have developed a love of gardening, with some expressing a desire to become future farmers. Students have gained a deep respect for their environment and realized their personal responsibility in sustaining food supplies for generations to come. Most importantly, Hawks Park has given students something they will remember for a lifetime.

 

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..