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Tennessee school greenhouse adds rototillin’ to readin’, writin’
Tennessee Correspondent

HARTFORD, Tenn. — Kids are taught to clean their plates at mealtime - “There are starving children in Africa” is the frustrated-mother battle cry. But as children get older, people are often encouraged by polite society to leave a little, instead.

Students at Grassy Fork Elementary School believe those moms were right.

“We were tired of seeing so much food wasted in the cafeteria,” said eighth-grader Alyssa Shepherd, finishing her own plate of spaghetti on a recent Friday afternoon.

“We’re an innovative-type school,” explained Principal Shannon Grooms of his teachers’ approach to letting students help drive the planning of their own curricula. “We tend to grab on to things that’ll help our kids grow.”

So it seems the Smart Growth for Healthy Kids in Cocke County initiative couldn’t be better named. A partnership between University of Tennessee’s Extension and College of Social Work, and the Community House Cooperative (CHC) of Cocke County, Smart Growth is involving the approximately 120 children in grades K-8 at Grassy Fork with learning how urban growth, conservation, recycling and farming all tie in to create economy – and how to control it.

Extension competed for and won a single $32,000 EPA grant offered to its Region 4 eight-state area. CHC is the subcontractor helping administer how part of it is spent at Grassy Fork, which is chiefly for a new 16-foot-by-20-foot greenhouse behind the school.

A few years ago, Alex Adkins started school at Grassy Fork when his mother, Pam, began teaching there. The Adkins live in White Pine, about 30 miles from Hartford, where Alex explained his family has their own greenhouse in which they grow flowers, tomatoes and other vegetables to share with neighbors.

From this sprang his mother’s idea to establish a greenhouse for the students.

Because the school is so small, teaching is a collaborative effort that often mixes not only grade levels, but also abilities.

“Most people never know what they’re going to teach every year,” explained Pam Ball, handling the combined seventh- and eighth-grades this year.

Adkins’ classroom adjoined Ball’s, and the two are often through the door to talk to one another, swap ideas and help each other’s students. In this way, Ball said she learned about the greenhouse, and eventually the idea filtered down to the student body. It was a nice dream without financing - until Smart Growth came along.

“It was four years in the making, I guess,” said Kevin McConnell, extension agent for Cocke County, who has been teaching sustainability and conservation at Grassy Fork this semester with Seth Smith of CHC. “That’s what makes it so special, it was a long time coming.”

In addition to the greenhouse, students will compost their cafeteria leftovers on-site.

“The whole idea is to learn to reduce the waste stream,” McConnell said, adding the resulting fertilizer will be used on greenhouse seedlings – which, in turn, will grow into vegetables to use in the cafeteria, as well as ornamental plants to spruce up school grounds.

To maintain the greenhouse, the school plans to hold semi-annual sales consisting of plants seeded on-site and donated from local nurseries; the first sale is planned fairly soon. McConnell and Smith will continue to teach one day a week at Grassy Fork and help with the outdoor classroom, though its responsibility will fall heavily on the students themselves.

“Somebody asked me this morning, ‘Who’s the boss?’” Ball said, referring to the greenhouse project. “There’s not a boss; it’s everybody’s project.”

This farm news was published in the Nov. 29, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.