Immaculate Conception Garden reaps statewide award
DENTON — Keep Texas Beautiful recently named Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Denton as the winner of the statewide Sadie Ray Graff Educators and Educational Institution Award for its program that encourages environmental learning.
The seeds for Immaculate Conception’s program were sown 11 years ago as a school recycling effort with the help of a Keep Denton Beautiful Environmental Education Grant. Since then, Immaculate Conception has grown it into a multifaceted environmental program that gives students a real-life experience.
“We are blessed to have a wonderful community liaison with Keep Denton Beautiful who shares our common vision of stewardship of God’s creation,” Elaine Schad, principal of Immaculate Conception, said.
The program not only includes recycling, but also a large garden, composting, design and construction techniques, service learning through a faith focus, outdoor learning, a buddy program, and sustainability, she said.
“With our mission of developing the whole child to serve God and to serve others, we wanted our students to apply their practical gardening skills throughout their lives, so we expanded our focus to our service-learning garden,” Schad said.
Since 2010, the program has been run by Tina Jezek, school environmental recycling and sustainability coordinator. Jezek is a certified Texas organic gardener. She is assisted in the program by teacher Natalie Paulus.
“My involvement with the school garden program started in 2009 when my son did his Eagle Scout project. He installed an underground irrigation system and 15 raised beds for the school garden,” Jezek said. “I joined the Immaculate Conception School staff in 2010. Since I had a vested interest in keeping my son’s Eagle project going far into the future, and having a large amount of experience in gardening, I created an outdoor classroom experience for the school.”
The learning experience is hands-on for roughly 200 students.
“The program is primarily gardening, landscaping, and composting. Almost every class from pre-K through eighth grade are involved in tasks such as weeding, planting, watering, adding compost, mulching, and harvesting,” Jezek said.
“The students learn about the entire life cycle of the plants, from planting the seeds, watching the seedlings break through the soil, measuring growth, watching blooms appear, seeing the bees and insects pollinate the blooms, seeing the blooms change into vegetables, and finally harvesting the crops for distribution to the local soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread,” she said.
Schad said making gardening, environmental education, and hands-on experiences available to children can have a positive impact on them.
“Research shows that having a school garden results in significantly increased science achievement scores, increased respect for nature that lasts into adulthood, and increased willingness to improve nutrition.” Schad said. “As the projects have been developed, classroom teachers have become more comfortable with their level of knowledge about gardening and the environment.”
Schad said the crops grown in the garden include squash, watermelon, pumpkin, okra, turnips, tomato, cabbage, herbs, and flowering plants that encourage the opportunity for the plants to be pollinated.
“Approximately 350 pounds of fresh produce is delivered to the soup kitchen annually from our vegetable garden,” she said. “In addition, some of our elective classes include teaching our older middle school students to cook and food preservation techniques.”
With the help of students, the program is also building a new greenhouse to replace one that was destroyed during a storm. Seventh- and eighth-grade students are building the shelving for the inside of the greenhouse and installing polycarbonate panels on the outside.
“All grade levels will be able to start plants from seed and house them in the greenhouse until time for introducing them to the garden in the spring,” Jezek said. “With the help of a grant from Keep Denton Beautiful, a solar panel system will be purchased and installed to supply the needed energy for keeping the greenhouse warm in the winter and cool in the summer.”
Schad said that “all students will gain more in-depth information about seasons, planting, proper soil selection, fertilizing and composting, and maintenance of their garden,” once the greenhouse is completed.
Immaculate Conception received the award in June at the Keep Texas Beautiful state luncheon in Austin. It was the only educational institution recognized.
Schad said the award recognizes “the efforts of educators and educational institutions who encourage youth involvement and promote the Keep Texas Beautiful mission through environmental education.”
“The big idea is that every child will know that what God created is just very precious — very precious,” Schad said. “And, how can we utilize our very limited resources — that we actually need knowledge to allow us to do that — and for us to be cognizant of being very respectful of what God has given us.”