The TECS school garden in full bloom, prior to the pandemic.
When my wife and I first decided to move to Topanga, one of the main draws for us was Topanga Elementary, as we wanted our children to attend a public school that was part of a thriving local community. After many years at the school, one of the things we cherish most about Topanga Elementary is its outdoor spaces and its general location within this beautiful canyon that we call home. Teachers and students regularly explore the extensive trails behind the school on science hikes. Prior to COVID-19, the school would serve as a field trip destination for other local elementary schools (including yearly visits from Hart Street Elementary School), who sought to appreciate the unique outdoor environment that envelops the school.
One outdoor space, however, has been crying out for renewal, the community garden, located adjacent to the outdoor stage across from the Kindergarten and first grade classrooms.
The garden at Topanga Elementary was first created in the 1990s. The school initially received a grant from the California Instructional School Garden Program, as well as donations from parents; TK teacher (and wearer of many other hats at the school!) Amy Weisberg served as the onsite coordinator for the school as the garden was built and then used for teaching and learning with the students. For many years, teachers and parent volunteers brought students into the garden for interdisciplinary lessons that intertwined science, art, math and measurement, poetry, and so much more. When utilized effectively, according to Mrs. Weisberg, “the school garden benefits all TECS students. It provides an outdoor learning experience that integrates many curricular areas in a hands-on approach.”
Over the years, however, the amount of time and resources devoted to upkeep of the garden have diminished, and the COVID shutdown meant no one could be on campus for many months to attend to the garden at all. Now that teachers and students have been back on campus for over a year, I am glad to report that efforts are currently underway to bring the Topanga Elementary garden back to life!
Unsurprisingly, Amy Weisberg is one of the teachers spearheading the current efforts to revitalize it. Collaborating with third-grade teacher Kelly Welch, Mrs. Weisberg just submitted an application for a grant for the garden with the Whole Kids Foundation (wholekidsfoundation.org/programs/school-gardens-grant). Successful applicants can bring $3000 to their schools, and Weisberg and Welch identified the following as goals for the grant, writing:
“This grant will enable the school to invest in the school’s raised beds, large containers, and infrastructure that serve all classes. Our Garden Program is committed to creating a curriculum that begins with our youngest TK four-year-old students, and spirals through the academic curriculum, culminating with our fifth-grade students. The range of investments for our gardens include drip systems (to replace the worn out and poor functioning current system), new soil and soil amendments, seeds, and plants, wood poles, stakes, and rabbit fencing. We expect the garden program to become a foundational component of our school.”
As part of the application, the teachers identified several community partners that have pledged to provide sustainable support to the school’s gardening program, including Viola Gardens Design with landscape design; Topanga Lumber for advice, donations and soil amendments; and Café on 27, who have offered to have a chef come and lead healthy eating and nutrition demonstrations using the Topanga school garden.
Grant recipients won’t be notified until August, but that doesn’t mean TECS community members will be sitting on their hands waiting. Topanga Enrichment Programs (TEP), the fundraising arm of Topanga Elementary, and Leadership Parent Representatives like myself will also be supporting the garden rebirth efforts in various ways. TEP has already earmarked funds for short-term garden improvements to be made in the Spring and Summer months, and Leadership parents are targeting repairing and/or replacing the school’s drip system as the first priority for action this month. Going forward, parent donations to TEP help fund salaries for teacher aides and new teachers who will work directly in the garden, including a new Science teacher, which the school is actively searching for.
“In my experience,” Weisberg says, “Children who have opportunities to spend time outdoors in nature create lasting memories and develop connections to teachers and to each other through their shared gardening experiences.”
The Topanga Elementary garden has provided a space for these kinds of opportunities in the past; we look forward to providing more updates in the coming months as we work towards facilitating its rebirth in the very near future!
J.B. Whittenburg is a Topanga Elementary Leadership Parent Representative.
Little gardeners at work. (All photos can be found on Google)