At Cherry Hill Alternative High School in Cherry Hill, N.J., great educations are made with soil, seeds, and sunshine.
The school, which serves 44 students, is devoted to “academic rigor, character education, career exploration and workplace readiness,” according to its vision statement. In 2010, Cherry Hill Alternative High School had established internships and financial literacy programs to support this vision. Students were required to complete service hours, which, up until then, had happened off campus.
This ideal sowed a new seed. Planted three years ago, the community garden initially functioned as an on-site alternative to the school’s service learning requirement. Because the high school is housed in the same building as Cherry Hill Public School District administrative offices, students sometimes felt that they lacked ownership of their environment.
“We wanted to build a sense of pride in our school campus,” said Dr. Neil Burti, Cherry Hill’s Principal. Today, 12 students now tend the garden: school pride grows alongside lettuce, onions, tomato, kale, and cucumbers.
Since its first harvest the garden has blossomed into more than a school beautification project. Although the school originally planned to donate its produce to the local food bank, FDA regulations caused it to till the soil in a different direction.
Today, the high school intends to partner with Spring Hills Cherry Hill, a nearby nursing home and assisted living community with a garden of its own.
The garden also has become essential to the high school’s science curriculum, which explores biology alongside environmental education and sustainability.
When speaking at the Green School National Network Conference in Denver, Secretary Duncan said that “green schools and environmental literacy… complement the goals of providing a well-rounded education for the 21st century, of modernizing schools at reduced costs, and of accelerating learning.”
Paul Arno, a science teacher at Cherry Hill Alternative school, uses the garden extensively as a classroom. For example, in one lesson, students are asked to sketch factors in the ecosystem.
“They get the picture along with the words,” said Arno. “Students can know it on one level, but when they see it [in action], they really start to get it.”
The garden is part of Cherry Hill Township’s sustainability effort to raise student awareness of environmental issues, according to Arno. By facilitating science lessons such as “Looking Toward the Future” and offering work in the garden, the school fosters a community based on social responsibility, respect for the environment, and hands-on learning.
Through a recent grant provided by the Cherry Hill Education Foundation, the school purchased a composter. Along with the garden’s rain barrel, it helps students learn firsthand the essential components of fully sustainable food sources.
“The garden makes it real to them,” said Arno.
Meredith Bajgier is a public affairs specialist in ED’s Philadelphia regional office.