Summer School in the International Garden

This summer, Gateway Greening Educators Meg Holmes and Lucy Herleth had the opportunity to be a part of the Nahed Chapman New American Academy garden’s story by participating in summer school.


Meet the International Welcome School Garden

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Students stop to check on their newly planted summer crops during a lesson in the International Welcome School Garden.

“My original question was…Can we provide refugee students with information that can assist them in overcoming the unique challenges that exist in their classrooms?  As the nation’s demographics change, so does our responsibility to meet the needs of this diverse student body.  These students have significant implications for educational and social policy.   One component of the Nahed Chapman New American Academy ecological milieu was to provide avenues for in-depth discussions of practices that can help all students make informed choices when it comes to our environment.  As a result of those discussions, surveys were taken and students decided to plan and grow an International Garden.” – Nelver Brooks, educator and garden leader at the Nahed Chapman New American Academy

Read the rest of Nelver Brooks original story of the International Garden’s founding: The Journey Begins with Us, on the Gateway Greening Blog.


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Students transformed weeding into a moment of learning, laughter, and discovery during Summer School in the International Welcome School Garden.

The first week of summer school, many students visited the school garden for the very first time. They looked around for different parts of plants and noticed how plants changed as they grew. They inspected and planted tiny seeds, crouched down and counted the small seedlings, and looked around for flowers. The best part was when they discovered that the bean plants were ready to harvest. The students picked long green beans and I showed them how to carefully open the pods. Inside of the bean was a surprise – seeds! The plant’s growth was a life cycle, going from seed to seed. The kids then tasted the raw beans or fed them to the worms in the compost bin.” -Lucy Herleth



Summer School in the International Welcome School Garden

During the final week of Summer School, we caught up with Meg as she led the students through an exploration of compost and the process of decomposition.

Meg kicked off each class’s time in the garden with story time beneath the shady trees that line the school’s courtyard. Compost Stew, and A to Z Recipe for the Earth by Mary McKenna Siddals is a “rhyming recipe [that] explains how to make the dark, crumbly, rich, earth-friendly food called compost,”  and is a fun way to engage students in a conversation about the compost bins in the International Welcome School Garden.

After the story, students were invited to share what they had learned, and what they might already know about composting from their home country. Moments like these are a chance to connect concepts and new vocabulary words to hands-on activities. As Meg says, “Outdoor experiential learning [is important] so that when they’re in the classroom, they have scaffolding to hang their experiences on.”

Curious about the lessons Gateway Greening Educators use in school gardens? Check out our Seed to STEM program on the Gateway Greening website to learn more!

Summer School students discovering common ground while working together to weed the International Welcome School Garden.

Things took a laughter-filled turn as students insisted on taking a detour to the planting beds to check on their crops. This summer, the garden is overflowing with okra, corn, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, hot peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, beans, and even wildflowers for the pollinators – all planted by the students. The detour was full of small moments of joy as students discovered new peppers or tomatoes hiding among the leaves.

Joy has been a regular guest in the International School Garden this summer:

After learning how plants need food, water, air, and space to grow, the students enthusiastically weeded the corn garden bed. The soil was hard, so it was a struggle to get many of the weeds out by their roots. With each weed, almost every student wanted to show the teachers the plant, waving the weed proudly around. Students even discovered that some weeds at their school looked similar to weeds back in their home country.”  – Lucy Herleth


Composting at School

In 2016, the International Welcome School Garden was awarded a three-bin compost system through Gateway Greening’s Garden expansion program. Designed to be easy for people of all sizes and ages to use, the compost bins are perfect for jumping in and exploring during class! Meg made the most of the students’ ‘summer energy’ with a hands-on crash course on how the compost system works.

One of the many challenges faced by urban gardeners is the constant presence of trash blowing around and the International School sees its fair share blow into the courtyard. During the lesson, Meg had each class picking up debris and deciding whether it belonged in the trash, the recycling, or the compost pile. Within no time at all the students had the garden tidied up and moved on to the next project, but the lesson they learned will continue when they return to the garden this fall.

Who knows? The Nahed Chapman New American Academy may decide to join the growing number of St. Louis schools who work with students to divert lunch room food scraps to the compost pile in the coming year.


Worms for Everyone!

By the end of the lesson, most students had transitioned from “ew!” to “cool!”

No lesson on composting could be complete without an introduction to some of our favorite decomposers – worms!

“Vermicomposting systems are easy to set up in the classroom and are a great jumping off point for lessons on energy use, decomposition, habitat, and more.” – Lucy Herleth

Many of the Academy’s students had never encountered the strange looking, wriggling creatures that are worms before and spent several minutes squealing as their peers bravely agreed to hold them. However, after a few minutes of talking about what worms are and explaining how hard they work to make the garden a healthier, more productive space, many of the students began to calm down and ask if they could hold a worm too.

Encountering new creatures, learning what they eat and how they live, can be an opportunity for each of the students to practice empathy and other social/emotional skills that are an important part of every child’s development.


What’s Next?

Summer school in the International Welcome Garden may have ended for the year, but the lessons will continue this fall when classes resume.

Not having worked with ESL (English as a Second Language) students before, and always when you have new kids, you are a little apprehensive, but food is a great way to bring people together and it’s a great way to find common ground with anyone.” – Meg Holmes

Students in the International Garden
Students from countries all over the world find common ground during Summer School in the International Welcome School Garden.

Compost Challenge at Mallinckrodt Academy

Mallinckrodt Academy’s Compost Bin with a fresh layer of “greens” to balance its mix.

Whether you enjoy a good steak or are a vegetarian, the truth is we all rely on healthy soil in which to grow our food (or our cows food). Simply put, we would not be able to eat without soil. Over the last week the fourth graders at Mallinckrodt Academy have been learning about the importance of soil to our world.

Depending on the local climate, it can take hundreds of years to develop one inch of topsoil. That can be difficult to demonstrate in the classroom. Fortunately, there’s a way for students to speed this process along – composting in the school garden.

Healthy compost consists of nitrogen rich greens: food scraps, grass clippings, and weeds that haven’t yet gone to seed, layered with carbon filled browns: dried leaves, newspaper, and straw, all mixed with a bit of water and soil (to inoculate new batches of compost with microorganisms that will help to decompose the compost over time). This week the fourth graders of Mallinckrodt spent some quality time observing their compost bin, and discovered that the balance of “browns” and “greens” was off. A compost bin that is piled high with mostly oak leaves would break down eventually, but not anytime soon. When the students were asked how they could remedy the imbalance, the answer was clear – the food scraps from their lunches would be perfect!

Lunchroom to Compost

Mallinckrodt Academy has had an active school composting program for the last few years, but in recent weeks the school has streamlined their method to great success.

When the program was first implemented, it began with a single bucket placed near the cafeteria trash can during lunch. This quickly proved to be too messy, leading to extra work for the janitorial staff.

Mallinckrodt students separating their personal food scraps for composting during lunch.

After weeks of enduring this method, the lunchroom staff came up with a workable solution. Rather than using just one bucket placed near the trash, cafeteria staff purchased small buckets like the kind used for sanitizing water to put at each table. With a few announcements during lunch from Youth Educator Meg Holmes, Senior Jake Norman the spanish teacher, and even Mr. DeAndre Thomas the principal, students soon knew to throw excess food they weren’t going to eat into the compost. Even more importantly, the students knew which food could be composted (apple cores, bread crust, peas) and which food stuffs could not (trash, chicken nuggets, milk).

Although the students of Mallinckrodt experienced a few growing pains when first beginning to compost their food scraps, the school as a whole now diverts several pounds a week from the trashcan to the compost bin! The school has even gone so far as too instigate “Waste Not Wednesdays” which has become a positive way to include the whole school, students and staff, to care for their garden and the earth.

-Meg Holmes, Gateway Greening Youth Educator


Gateway Greening challenges each of our In-Network School and Community Gardens to take on The Compost Challenge in 2017. Are you game?


Additional Resources:

Looking for more information on composting or implementing school composting programs? Check out these resources, or email our Educators at [email protected].

Video: An overview of composting

Video: This Week in the Community Garden – Composting

Video: Composting at Busch Middle School of Character  

VermiComposting at Gateway Elementary


Although the school gardens may be resting, Seed to STEM is growing; Gateway Greening is now working directly with fourth grade classes at Gateway Elementary. Gateway Greening and the fourth graders are full of enthusiasm for the new partnership, which is fortunate since January is all about energy!

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GG Youth Educator Lucy introduces Gateway Elementary 4th Graders to VermiComposting and forms of Energy.


The Gateway Greening Education Team has been hard at work building off of classroom lessons about different forms of energy to bring energy to life in the garden and classroom. The fourth graders searched for forms of energy inside and out. They discovered a chilly, wintry day is the best time to explore how to use thermal energy to get warm. Then the students were ready to get their hands dirty to see energy conservation in action.

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Students discovering vermicomposting at Gateway Elementary

Discussions about energy and indoor lessons are the perfect time to introduce worms and vermicomposting. Vermicomposting systems are easy to set up in the classroom and are a great jumping off point for lessons on energy use, decomposition, habitat, and more. The lesson began when the students first observed a completed composting worm bin system and determined what made it a functional habitat for red wiggler worms. Each student had a chance to smell, touch, and study the food, worms, and soil in the compost bin. They realized that the “soil” was actually worm castings: nutrient rich worm poop. (The general reaction was, you guessed it: “Gross!”) For some fourth graders it was their first time holding a worm. Other students excitedly held and measured their worms.  

Once the students understood how vermicomposting worked, they created their own mini composting bins. Using plastic containers, newspaper, and leaves, they put together what they thought would be the best possible habitat for the red wigglers. After moistening the shredded newspaper and adding air holes, the students introduced the worms to their new habitats. The last class of the day even added leftover vegetable scraps from the cafeteria to the bins for the worms to feast on.

In the coming weeks, the fourth graders at Gateway Elementary will observe how the worms use the vegetable scraps.  They will make connections between conserving energy and using food waste to benefit the garden. Once the students move their worms to a larger vermicomposting system, they will start participating in the Gateway Greening Compost Challenge. Will they produce more compost or more food waste than your school?


By Lucy Herleth, Gateway Greening Youth Educator