Ask Southold Elementary School student Emiliann Palermo what she wants to be when she grows up, and she’ll say a lawyer.
The 11-year-old is getting a taste of the professional world, without litigation and the like for now, not in a traditional classroom setting but alongside the plants sprouting in her school’s garden.
Emiliann helps grow and harvest the school’s organically grown and hand-picked veggies, and she volunteers to sell them at the Greenport Farmers’ Market. She also makes graphs displaying how many vegetables were sold, detailing their varieties and pricing.
“It has taught me how to be organized,” Emiliann said about her involvement with the garden. “I think it’s fun having your own place to get your own food. It’s all fresh.”
Her friend, Gabriella Drumm, 11, also enjoys participating in the garden and the farmers market.
“My favorite part about the garden is planting seeds and seeing how they grow,” Gabriella said. “My father was a potato farmer and my mother farmed upstate. It’s in my genes.”
The girls’ experiences are common among students whose school has planted a garden, the trend toward which has grown in recent years through first lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to promote programs encouraging healthier lifestyles for children.
Southold School District’s 100-foot by 120-foot organic garden — enclosed with an untreated, cedar fence adorned with student artwork — was the site and main attraction of the area’s first School Garden Expo last Thursday.
Organizations such as Slow Food East End, Edible School Gardens, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Josh Levine Foundation had tables with information supporting school garden efforts. Some Southold students displayed irrigation and composting projects that they developed and that are now implemented at the school. Other students provided entertainment, such as musical performances and poetry readings. Greenport and Oysterponds school officials also took part in the event.
About two years ago, Southold biodynamic farmers K.K. and Ira Haspel helped the district construct the 12,000-square foot garden. It now has more than 36 beds containing a mixture of greens, such as lettuce, arugula, cabbage and romaine. Other vegetables include broccoli, radishes, shallots and red potatoes. Additional areas around the garden’s perimeter will grow pumpkins, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes.
After the vegetables are harvested, students and staff enjoy freshly prepared salads in the cafeteria.
Southold Elementary School principal Ellen O’Neill said the expo showcased how gardens can provide students with real life learning opportunities in the midst of a “high stakes” educational environment, with rigorous student assessments tied to a new teacher/principal evaluation system.
Ms. O’Neill said she believes the garden teaches students social skills and provides learning opportunities in science, math, history and art.
“We didn’t stop great teaching just to do workbooks and worksheets to get ready for the tests,” she said. “If you provide students with great opportunities, they’re going to do just fine on the assessments and, more importantly, they’re going to be able to take this into their real life.”
New York State Board of Regents member Roger Tilles also attended the expo and described Southold’s school garden as the most elaborate he’s visited.
Mr. Tilles, of Great Neck, is the only Board of Regents member with children currently attending public schools. He said he doesn’t believe the high stakes testing model and its cookie-cutter approach is necessary for most Long Island schools because their students score higher on exams than those in other districts across the state.
He said with so many schools now “teaching to the test,” he’s found it refreshing to see school districts embracing new methods where students learn through experience.
“When I see projects like these, schools are going to do better on the testing,” Mr. Tilles said. “This is part of a comprehensive program that has all of their students deal with math, science, arts, and business. It’s a great way to learn.”