Story by Travis Gray
Photos by Kristin Schaeffer

Students at Evansville Elementary will get the chance to develop their green thumbs when the school holds the grand opening for its new student-run greenhouse on July 19. Students enrolled in the summer school session will be the first to start using the greenhouse, a project two years in the making.

“It’s nice because the idea came out of a summer school session two years ago,” said current Evansville Elementary Principal Wayne Tuttle. “So this will be our ‘soft opening’ and a chance to iron out any remaining kinks.” Summer school students will be finalizing the drip system and building the remaining planter boxes so that the greenhouse will be in full operation by the start of the school year.

The 1200 sq. ft. structure, located just north of the school building, is specifically designed for educational purposes and is built to withstand Wyoming’s high winds and often extreme weather conditions. The greenhouse features lights, both heating and a cooling wall system for temperature control, indoor and outdoor growing systems, and an aquaponics system wherein the waste produced by fish supplies nutrients for the plants. Future expansions may include a hydroponics system to grow plants without the need for soil, and possibly acquiring additional space for a community garden open to any Evansville resident.

Each grade level at the school will have its own planters so that students and teachers can determine their own levels of involvement. “I imagine some of the involvement will come from after school activities,” Tuttle said, “but our vision is to incorporate it into the curriculum as much as possible. We want kids to understand how food is grown and where their food comes from. We see this as giving them life-long skills, whether it inspires a future career path or just gives them the tools to be weekend gardeners,” he said. “For some students, this may even be better suited to their learning styles than a traditional classroom setting.”

Noelle Clark, a third grade teacher at Evansville Elementary, is excited about the learning opportunities the greenhouse will provide and said they will align well with Common Core State Standards. “For language arts, students can read informational and procedural texts and apply that knowledge in the garden. Students will be able to write research papers and carry out plant observation logs for writing. Math students can use measurement to plan garden boxes and growth charts,” she said. “The greenhouse can be a way to take abstract ideas and make them tangible for students. This will give students a real-world application for why they are learning what they are.”

The idea for a community greenhouse was first raised by students in the 2014 summer school session. “We were teaching a water conservation unit, and each group of students was tasked with presenting a project to promote water conservation,” said Dirk Andrews, an Evansville Elementary primary instructor who led the summer school unit. “A lot of the groups wanted to do a community garden, which didn’t necessarily fit with the idea of water conservation. But I was impressed by their enthusiasm, so I encouraged them to research different options and make a presentation to the principal.”

Mike Britt, the principal at the time, liked what he heard and wanted to make the students’ vision a reality. He and Andrews reached out to Sinclair Oil, a longtime supporter of Evansville Elementary, who provided initial funds to get the ball rolling and who is sponsoring the open house. Britt also coordinated with a private donor whose support allowed Evansville Elementary to purchase the greenhouse kit. A team of volunteers — ranging from teachers and school staff to parents and local businesses — was assembled, and the city of Evansville committed to doing whatever it could to facilitate the project.

That’s when LeAnn Miller, her son Jesse Miller, and the Casper Community Greenhouse Project (CCGP) came on board. “We had previously worked with Mills Elementary, which already had a student-run greenhouse but needed help running and organizing it and was looking for guidance on how to implement it into their curriculum,” Jesse said. “The CCGP was able to help with that.”

“We were pleased with how successful it was,” LeAnn said of the partnership with Mills Elementary. “So we were looking for another school to become involved with when we heard about Evansville Elementary. It was perfect timing.”

Volunteers slowly constructed the greenhouse over the course of the next year. The building phase took longer than anyone initially thought, but Tuttle said the project is now on schedule and that the volunteers have remained committed throughout. “We appreciate the passion of everyone involved,” Tuttle said. “The kids who have been involved are the most excited. They see the greenhouse but aren’t sure how it’s going to work yet. Once they have a chance to get in there, I suspect their excitement will continue to grow.”

A goal team comprised of Evansville teachers will ensure that the greenhouse is used to its fullest potential to benefit students, their families and the Evansville community. But students will be the driving force behind the greenhouse, Andrews said. “The kids will be deciding what to plant, whether that’s vegetables and fruits or flowers and plants or a combination of both.”

With the construction done, the only future costs should be electricity and water, plus general maintenance. But Andrews said that students will be responsible for the ongoing sustainability of the greenhouse. “Mills Elementary holds a Mother’s Day flower sale each year, which is very successful for them, and we don’t want to step on their toes in that regard. But students will look into other sales or maybe a farmers market to help the greenhouse pay for itself,” he said. “We’re even looking into the idea of establishing a pumpkin patch for Halloween.”

Everyone involved said that the benefits of the Evansville Elementary greenhouse will be immeasurable. “Research shows that when a community really ‘adopts’ a school, as the town of Evansville has done with us, the overall performance of the school increases,” Andrews said. “So this greenhouse will be another way to really help our school and our students.”

Clark said she appreciates how the greenhouse will help students, their parents and the overall community alike. “Students will develop a healthier relationship with food and activity and learn the value in hard work and commitment. They will become vested in their community and deepen their understanding of their role in the environment, making them global stewards. Parents will get the satisfaction of volunteering and hopefully some free food. And the community will have volunteer opportunities and the benefits of neighborhood children who have something and somewhere constructive to spend their time,” she said.

B89A0509LeAnn Miller echoed that sentiment, saying that communities become healthier and more engaged when they rally around community gardening. “Mills Elementary is a prime example,” she said. “The kids got ecstatic and really got into the fundraising and then selling their flowers and produce. It’s become so engrained in their curriculum that when they began discussing the construction of a new elementary school, everyone agreed that the plans had to include a greenhouse.”

Furthermore, she said she has seen students adopt healthier eating habits of their own volition. “We’ve seen students saying, ‘Oh, we would rather have carrots than sugar’ and ‘Don’t send us chocolate milk anymore.’ And healthier communities is really our goal, so we’d love to see more people with greenhouses and buying locally grown foods.” She said the CCGP is committed to making this happen. “Wyoming is unique in that we’ve got rural communities that have lots of producers but not always the market for their goods, and then we have towns and communities that have the markets but not the producers. So we want to connect the two together.”

Though he has stepped down from the CCGP board to finish up his medical degree, Jesse Miller plans to continue his involvement with bringing more greenhouses to schools in Casper and eventually throughout the state. “Our goal is to build experiential learning facilities for children — something beyond reading about it in a book,” he said. “We want to give kids tangible experience with growing things and nutrition and even entrepreneurship. You know, I’ve read about students who don’t know where food actually comes from; they think it just comes from a store or a box. We want them to understand the process and become a part of it and take ownership of it.”

He added that he has seen community gardens change the dynamic of families who participate in them. “Initially, people are kind of skeptical. They aren’t sure how it’s going to work or what impact it will have on their families. But we know that parents usually make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of their children, so when the kids are going home and saying ‘We want more vegetables,’ the parents become very interested and supportive.”

Frontier Middle School is the next school with plans to develop a greenhouse, and Grant Elementary has also expressed interest. Other schools and communities will likely join in as they see the results. “This is a real trend,” Andrews said. “If we can change how people think about food, and if we can change some of the state policies so that more people have access to locally grown goods, everyone will benefit.”

“Greenhouses offer so many opportunities for learning, whether that is math or writing or science,” LeAnn Miller said. “Plus, they have shown that digging in the dirt has antidepressant qualities. And who doesn’t want that? Let’s get kids digging in the dirt!”

To learn more about the Casper Community Greenhouse Project, visit www.growcasper.org.

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