Akimel A-al Middle School Assistant Principal Dana Westernman

Akimel A-al Middle School Assistant Principal Dana Westernman, foreground, carries some lumber during the all-day construction of the campus’ new high-tech greenhouse as Heidi Burgess does the same behind her.

It started with a long-abandoned garden that Akimel A-al Middle School Assistant Principal Dana Westerman persuaded a student to clean up in the hopes of inspiring him to get more engaged in school.

But over the last three years, that patch has become an evolution growing a revolution.

First there was a garden. Then a few chickens and a giant tortoise were added. A butterfly garden seemed a natural fit and then parakeets found it a nice place to roost

Last Saturday, the evolving Akimel farm added a giant high-tech greenhouse – thanks to a $5,000 grant from Lowe’s, a renowned world expert on sustainability and the sweat equity of about 40 volunteers who spent the day erecting it.

Akimel students in science-technology-engineering-math designed the greenhouse, a new component in an expanding program that’s providing ongoing lessons for scores of students in agriculture, STEM and qualities like leadership and teamwork.

That program has attracted not only Akimel students, but also some from adjacent Estrella Elementary. And it could eventually evolve into an agriculture component in the curriculum at nearby Desert Vista High School, providing a continuum of education in a subject that few would expect to find in a highly urbanized area, even in Ahwatukee.

Westerman didn’t expect the enthusiasm with which students have embraced the farm during its formative stages.

 “Pretty much what I discovered is that our kids desperately need this,” she said. “I’ve never seen such engaged people.”

She recalled what happened when she decided three years ago to revive the garden, which had fallen into decrepitude over the years before she got there.

“We literally had 10 tons of dirt delivered and we had a huge group of boys and girls who put shovels in their hands. It was kind of shocking,” she said, adding:

“When the dirt was delivered, it was really hot and kids were begging me, ‘please let me dig, please let me go out and shovel and get dirty and sweaty.”

That group’s reaction mirrored the reaction of the student she initially asked to trim back the overgrowth that had accumulated on what once was “a beautiful garden,” Westerman said.

“I pretty much gave him a shovel and said, ‘start pulling up the weeds.’ And, honestly it was like the first time I’d seen him smile and get engaged. He got really motivated and even met me on a Saturday.”

Once the area was cleared, “through conversations with our awesome community, we found some parents who owned a commercial contracting company and they sent over a crew and they leveled it off. And then, just through more conversations with community members and our parents, we raised some money to put in some flower beds.”

Indeed, the response to the growing garden not only echoes through the Akimel and Estrella community, but even to experts in sustainability who have taken an interest in how the project has developed.

“It was just really, ‘let’s plant some seeds in the ground and see what happens.’ And just over the couple years that we’ve been working on this, we have discovered that there is not only a wide need for it, but also a lot of people who want to support us.”

Enthusiasm continued to spread with the addition of three chickens, which have a comfortable coop with an air conditioning system Westerman’s husband built.

“We kind of joke about how they have become therapy chickens,” Westerman said. “We have a lot of kids who just ask, ‘Can we just go hug the chicken? Can I go look at the chickens? They’re kind of like lapdogs and if you sit down, these chickens will absolutely jump on your lap and let you hold them.”

For special-needs students, “it really is magic with them. We have a couple of boys who we call our chicken wranglers. They go visit the chickens every single day and take care of them. And it is just precious to see. It’s pretty magical, actually.”

The magic expanded with the addition of a tortoise weighing several hundred pounds. It too has its own safe, comfortable abode on the Akimel farm.

Along the way, Westerman added a compost heap – which also has become a source of ongoing lessons for the students in the science of composting and in the value of environmentally-friendly activity.

For example, the students have partnered with cafeteria workers and take waste and put it in the composting bins.

The greenhouse is a good example of how the whole operation at Akimel embraces multiple disciplines.

“The science curriculum just marries perfectly with the garden space,” said Westerman.

“What’s super cool about having a greenhouse is you can completely control all of the variables and my science teachers are just super excited about the opportunity to have this space that will be like an outdoor classroom space where they can actually implement a lot of their curriculum – particularly our eighth grade science students.

“Genetics is a huge part of eighth grade science and they’re all already trying to think about what they can genetically modify and the different things that they can grow with these controlled conditions.”

With the help of an Intel volunteer, the school developed a relationship with a Mesa nonprofit called Garden Pools, which works around the world to build hydroponic systems that are at once a home to tilapia but also use the waste from the fish as fertilizer for the plants.

Founder/CEO Dennis McClung – considered such a worldwide sustainability expert that he spoke recently at the United Nations during a climate change conference – heard about Akimel’s farm and donated “massive amounts of materials to our school” as well as a small army of volunteers who helped build the greenhouse and set up the hydroponic system.

As the garden has grown into a little farm, so too has its impact on the Akimel curriculum. 

This year the school added agriculture as an elective.

It’s become so popular that Westerman expects the school will have to expand from one section to three next year to accommodate the number of students who want to participate.

At the same time, some Estrella Elementary students have become enthralled with the whole operation,

“Our kindergarten friends often come and spend time in our garden and hang out with our chickens. And so, we, we really see this project as it grows becoming more of a, of a shared project with the elementary school that’s next door.”

Nearby Desert Vista might not be far behind.

Michael Deignan, the Desert Vista principal and a former principal of Akimel, “has a great fondness for our school,” Westerman said, as well as an interest in the students’ embrace of the whole farm.

“We really want to create a Liberty Lane farm,” she said. “This is just all kind of snowballing.”

She envisions a farmer’s market eventually being added to the mix.

“I just know this has been really good for kids and we just are figuring it out as we go along. What’s so interesting is these kids are just driving this train. They have these goals and these plans.”

She points to the fact that the shape and look of the greenhouse was designed by an Akimel student during a contest in which a  number of STEM students competed to come up with a winning design, using a special software program called Sketchit.

“What Garden Pool did was take the design and put it in this 3D mock up. We had to actually tweak the boy’s design a little bit just to fit it into the space, but it’s essentially the design that he created.”

But the farm isn’t just an outdoor classroom.

It also has become a Garden of Eden of sorts on the campus.

“We’ve built a butterfly garden and we’ve got the parakeets that fly around. So it’s just an awesome place,” Westerman said.

“Between the butterflies and the parakeets that are chirping, the kids just love to be out there,” she continued.

“And that’s just the whole point. We give these kids a reason to come to school. And a lot of, a lot of these kids that haven’t really become engaged in these projects are kids that typically, you know, don’t see a lot of success. So that’s been the best part of it.”

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