March 11, 2010

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Gordon Chibroski

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Gordon Chibroski

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Most days, it's a struggle for Hector Velasquez to make it to school.

A sophomore in Portland High School's alternative education program, he's not much interested in sitting at a desk for hours at a time listening to a teacher go on about one subject or another.

A new garden-based curriculum is giving Velasquez and his classmates a fresh reason to come to school, get their hands dirty and help provide food for needy people in the community.

On Tuesday, Velasquez confidently lugged buckets of bark mulch into a garden plot on Oxford Street, just a block from the high school. He knows something about gardening. He helped his grandfather landscape his whole yard one summer.

''I hate being cooped up in the classroom,'' Velasquez said during a break. ''I'd rather be out here than inside asking 20 questions.''

Portland High's alternative education program targets students who are at risk of dropping out.

The program's staff started the gardening class in May as a service-learning project sponsored by a $250 grant from the Kids Consortium.

Cultivating Community, a nonprofit that promotes public gardens, provided the plot at Oxford and Chestnut streets, next to the city's homeless shelter. Almost immediately, alternative education staff members saw a difference in their students.

''It's amazing how much more engaged some of the students are when they're here,'' said Sophie Payson, a social worker in the program. ''I think it's because they're outside, working with their hands and seeing results.''

Kyra Adkins, the program's science and health teacher, uses the gardening class to reinforce traditional lessons about nutrition, ecology and sustainable food production.

Next year, Adkins and her colleagues plan to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum focused on the garden that will include lessons in reading, social studies and math.

Adkins said the garden provides a fresh forum where struggling students can envision the potential for success outside the classroom.

''Many of these students haven't seen a benefit from going to school for a long time,'' Adkins said. ''This is a whole different environment with a whole different set of expectations and a whole different opportunity for positive outcomes.''

She noted that although some of the students have worked in family gardens, many have little first-hand experience with growing food or making healthy food choices at the supermarket.

A dozen students worked in the garden Tuesday morning. Some created paths with bark mulch. Some watered the beans, peas, lettuce, tomatoes and other plants that have already sprouted. Others weeded or mapped out the perennial plants that rim the plot.

Summer school students will care for the garden through July, and Cultivating Community staff members and volunteers will oversee the plot until the students return in September.

Produce grown in the garden will be donated to local soup kitchens.

That's enough reason for Shantel Ballard and Katie Wilson, both sophomores, to pick up trowels and dig in dirt that's crawling with bugs and worms.

''I like the fact that we're going to grow this food and give it to homeless and needy people,'' Ballard said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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