As new life springs from the soil in the Murch Elementary School gardens, the school’s four-year-old GreenScene program is entering a new phase as well. The School Garden Program at the Office of the State Superintendant of Education (OSSE) has given Murch and its partner, DC Greens, a $10,000 grant to hire a part-time school garden educator.
With the help of additional funds from the Murch Home and School Association (HSA), the school now boasts the green thumb of Kealy Rudersdorf, an experienced school garden educator who has an M.A. in teaching, a B.S. in Civil Engineering, and has earned LEED accreditation and a certificate in permaculture design. As an employee of DC Greens, Ms. Rudersdorf also works part-time at Stoddert Elementary in its school garden program.
The Murch HSA’s GreenScene program supports six outdoor learning centers, including a 15-tree fruit orchard and diverse tree canopy, supported in partnership with Casey Trees; a small textile demonstration garden; a 900 sq. ft. organic vegetable garden; an organic herb container garden; a 1610 sq. ft. native plant and butterfly habitat garden, supported in partnership with the Monarch Sister Schools Program; and a rain barrel and compost center.
These modest centers were built and maintained by parents, teachers, staff, and community volunteers with funding from the Murch HSA and donations from community businesses and individuals, including generous donations from Whole Foods-Tenleytown. The Murch garden is also an approved volunteer location for DC Master Gardeners.
For the past several years, every student at Murch has had between one and three lessons per year in the gardens, plus one nutrition-based cooking lesson with a local chef. For example, while studying the American colonists, students started colonial herbs from seed in fourth grade classrooms. First graders planted a Native American Three Sisters garden of dent corn, pole beans, and summer squash to support their study of ancient native cultures. Carrying the theme through, chefs taught the students to make pumpkin bread or grits with herbs. Students can’t wait to see what the chefs from Pete’s Apizza are cooking up for their lessons this spring and next year.
The outdoor learning laboratories cover every corner of the Murch campus. The tall cornfield is a favorite sight of joggers along Reno Road in August. Many families walking along 36th Street have photographed their toddlers in the native plant butterfly garden, where each year pre-K students release the painted lady butterflies they hatch in the classroom, and second graders study the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly and environmental threats to its survival.
Last year’s third grade class planted a new fruit tree orchard along Davenport Street and Reno Road with Casey Trees. Neighbors can now enjoy the spring blossoms of the apple trees behind the Murch sign on Reno Road, watch as zebra swallowtail butterflies feed on the Davenport paw paw trees in summer, and enjoy the bright orange persimmons along Reno Rd after the leaves have fallen in November.
Ms. Rudersdorf brings to Murch the perspective of an educator who knows how to extend the classroom into the gardens and great outdoors. Murch Principal Chris Cebrzynski has tasked Ms. Rudersdorf with helping Murch’s teachers take the next step and integrate nature and the gardens into their daily lesson plans. So far this spring, she has planted Cherokee popcorn with the first grade, potatoes with the fifth grade in a soil science project that will be continued in the Fall by the current fourth graders, and started a fairy tale vegetable garden with the kindergarten.
With its ecologically rich campus, talented teaching staff, and administrative, government, and community support, Murch is primed to take advantage of all that nature has to offer in elementary school education.
Click any image below to see a slideshow of the Murch School garden program. Hit the “esc” key or click the “X” in the upper left to return to the article. All photos by Lisa Lavelle Burke.