Profile of Sam Ullery, School Garden Specialist at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in D.C.
I sat down with Sam, before our second to last Master Gardener class last Tuesday, to talk about his work at OSSE, how he got there, school gardens in D.C. and what parents and avid gardeners – like you – can do to support school gardens in your community.
Like a lot of folks in this field, Sam came at it sideways – starting out somewhere else. Before becoming D.C.’s School Garden Specialist, Sam was a high school science teacher – most recently at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southeast D.C. (where Capital City Farm Co.’s owner Kate Lee works as the Garden Specialist; check out the photo of Kate and Sam with Thurgood Marshall’s berry patch). And what drove him to want to introduce high school students to science eventually drove him to want to introduce kids of all ages to the garden: the intrinsic value of bringing nature into the classroom.
His love of gardening started in the Peace Corps, where he saw real dependence on the fruits of garden labor – if a harvest of potatoes didn’t make it, there was no grocery store to visit to buy those potatoes… there just weren’t any potatoes that year. And his love of gardening grew while he was teaching in the Bronx. He started a school garden, and was touched by the ways in which it spoke to and drew out his students: kids who weren’t engaged in the classroom got engaged in the garden, finding a new way to express themselves, and kids who were king of the hill in the classroom – straight As, etc– suddenly found themselves on a more even playing field… and his students depended on each other in the garden, in ways they didn’t in the classroom.
So what does it mean to be D.C.’s School Garden Specialist?
Sam does four big things: manage $200K in grants to schools to use to start, staff and maintain gardens; train school garden coordinators and teachers in conjunction with DC Greens; provide a rubric for measuring the success of school gardens, and conduct site visits to provide feedback based on that rubric; and act as the state lead for the Green Ribbon Schools program, recognizing schools for their greenness (beyond just the garden). He’s been at it now for 2 years, and is the first in his position. The position was created as part of the Healthy Schools Act – which we’ve mentioned in this blog before; it was a big turning point for school gardens in the District.
WAMU 88.5 covered the passage of the Act and it’s creation of Sam’s position. You can listen to their October 2011 story here.
And how do D.C.’s school gardens stack up to other big cities across the U.S.?
Sam says we stack up nicely. D.C. schools currently host a total of 83 gardens, meaning we have gardens at nearly 40% of our public and charter schools. And with the passage of the Healthy Schools Act, D.C. implemented a bond to help fund school gardens, a tax model very few jurisdictions have put in place (think San Francisco, Portland, Denver… places like that), and even fewer have someone like him.
Sam has seen the interest in school gardens sky rocket over the last several years, even months – and he’s psyched to see it, and thinks it goes hand in hand with the growing interest we’re all seeing in community gardens and urban farming, ways to eat healthy and eat local. He loves that schools gardens means kids are bringing gardening – and healthy eating – home to their families and communities.
His next steps at OSSE are to secure more grant funding to give away to schools to support the biggest need, staffing: only 3 or 4 schools have a full-time or near full-time garden coordinators right now (most gardens are managed by a full-time teacher or administrator, around the edges of their full-time job); and improve the assessment tools he and others can use to make the case for this funding: specifically, quantifying the significant health and behavioral benefits.
And what he hopes you’ll do is get involved!
If you’re a parent, and your kids’ school already has a garden, contact the school and find out more about the garden and who coordinates it and how you can help. Volunteer to help maintain the garden, organize a work day, or adopt a plot over the summer.
If you’re school doesn’t have a garden, help start one! Check out Sam’s handy school garden checklist, and get in touch with him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. (If you live in Maryland or Virginia, there are counterparts he can put you in touch with).
~ Monique, Capital City Farm Co.
Capital City Farm Co. is an independent, woman-owned company specializing in the design, construction and maintenance of custom vegetable gardens, and more, in the greater Washington DC area. Once a month on their blog they profile one of the people who make the greater Washington, DC area’s gardening community so rich and successful. (Photo courtesy ofThe Other 17 Hours, a Thurgood Marshall Academy blog, and DC Greens)