In fact, school garden-based education programs in schools can play a key role in solving the major challenges facing US public education: they can impact youth health, low academic achievement and chaotic school climate, and even the drastic inequality between urban public schools and predominantly white suburban schools.
Pretty bold statements, right? Theory and research are on my side! Let me explain.
Theory: Nonprofits as Mediating Institutions
Many theorists, starting with Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840, have remarked that voluntary associations in civil life are directly linked to equality in US society. Why? Our founding fathers intentionally created a decentralized system, so no individual would ever have too much power. The result? We came up with another way for individuals to have power and voice: nonprofits. Nonprofits mediate between the public and private spheres, bringing private values into the public sector (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977). Without these, the political system would be detached from our values and daily realities. Active participation of the people is necessary to bring meaning and values into those large, faceless government bureacracies, and to bring the voice of communities into the political system. How many times have you felt helpless, powerless, and treated as less than human when you, alone, deal with tax offices, parking tickets, the justice system, or even the school system?!
How do people in the US band together to voice their needs and make changes? The voluntary sector. All the major social movements have worked through nonprofits, from abolition through civil rights to now.
According to this theory, we would expect public education to be a huge, dehumanizing government bureacracy, neglecting the voices and values of the people, as long as it is not connected to the voluntary sector. What do you think?
Public Education: Factory, Bureaucracy or Community?
In fact, studies show exactly that!
- Civil society and democracy have deteriorated in the US public education system in the last 100 years as local control is stripped away, schools are consolidated into large districts run by distant officials, and state and federal regulation is greatly expanded (Finn et al., 2000). Community responsibility is way down.
- As a result, inequality and segregation are growing at a horrific rate, in successful schools in suburban, white and middle-class areas and failing urban schools serving low-income families of color. Teachers in dilapidated and overcrowded urban schools are under demands from above to use classroom methods developed for factories or for prison inmates, reducing schools to centers of "direct command and absolute control." Teachers struggle to maintain human relationships under such conditions, (Kozol, 2005).
- In urban school districts, efficient, professionalized, and standardized schools have cultivated a culture of power, in which teachers learn “deficit” views of parents, and see low-income parents of color with disdain and disrespect, and at fault for the barriers to their children’s success, while concentrated poverty and racism are the real causes (Warren, 2005).
There is Hope! Parent Organizing in Schools
If you take a closer look at your neighborhood schools, you will undoubtedly find inspiring examples of community members rising up to organize voluntary activity and inject community values into these seemingly impenetrable and bureaucratic schools.
Warren (2005) and Gold et al. (2004) offer examples of community groups like Oakland Community Organizations and Chicago's Logan Square Neighborhood Association that have successfully improved failing urban schools. Such organizations empower parents through group programs that address the inequality of racism and poverty while giving parents new skills and opportunities to contribute meaningfully to their children’s schools. The key is building social capital, or leveraging strong personal relationships to enable groups of people to make change. When groups come together, in voluntary action (i.e. nonprofits or mediating instutitions), those individual parents can hold governments accountable for the sickening injustice in public schools.
Putting the Pieces Together: School Gardens!
Now let me tell you the reasons why school gardens can help schools do all this and more.
1. School garden programs can build social capital and leadership in order to transform parent involvement in public education.
- All four of my case study schools described parent involvement as a crucial piece of the school garden program. At one school, parents created and sustained the garden. At the other three, the school garden has begun to create and sustain parent involvement. These are urban schools where the above issues are serious, and parents come to the garden anxious to voice opinions on a wide range of issues.
- Schools report that gardens provide an entrance to school involvement for many parents, particularly immigrant parents with agrarian backgrounds (CDE, 2002), who may feel uncomfortable in other aspects of the school, but bring great knowledge and experience to the garden.
- A successful program in San Bernardino used school gardens to build meaningful school participation among Latina mothers. The mothers created gardening skill workshops, gardening space at their children’s school, an adult aerobics class, and got the ear of the school principal, with the goal of improving youth and adult health and nutrition (Silberstein & Vega, 2004).
- Urban Sprouts own preliminary research results show that school garden programs are powerful ways to build youth and adult relationships, and youth resiliency assets like responsibility, self-efficacy, cooperation and communication (Ratcliffe et al, 2006).
- Youth development theory shows that these assets prepare students for success as participating citizens in early adulthood (Gambone et al., 1997).
- Having a garden may have school-wide effects on school climate and culture, as relationships and values of care developed in the school garden translate to the school community as a whole (Racliffe et al., 2006; Comnes, 1999).
- School garden programs often lead to other school-wide improvement projects, educational campaigns, and other youth-led leadership projects.
The Big Question: is it necessary that school gardens be supported by community nonprofits, in order to build civil society and equality in public schools? If government in the form of school districts were to take over or partner in the administration of school garden programs, would their role as mediating institutions be changed or diminished?
Stay tuned, and next time I'll discuss partnership between nonprofits and government.
(see comments for Works Cited)