"It's a unique environment," says Greenhouse School Director Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. It's a bit of an understatement. Surrounded by children in a repurposed greenhouse in Salem, The Witch City on Boston's north shore, she couldn't have been more concise.
The Greenhouse School is a private, year-round school serving kids from infancy through eighth grade. "Our kids are mainly from Salem and Lynn, two of the engines of manufacturing at the peak of the industrial revolution," says her husband, Director Dan Welch. Shoe factories, leatherworks, and the sweater mills dotted these coastal cities a century ago. "They're still city kids, but there's no manufacturing base. It's the story of the whole economy."
Welch and hiswife go on to explain why they put such effort into maintaining these kids' access to many of the aspects of youth that are harder to come by in urban environments: bike riding, swimming, and of course, farming. "When my mom instituted these aspects of the program, she was interested in how they relate to children's learning--giving a complex and well-rounded approach to teaching," Welch explains. "Over the years, we've come to realize that these are even more important to our target population."
"A lot of our kids might live in places where they can't ride a bike, either because it's an apartment with no outside space, or the neighborhood is dangerous, or simply because they aren't home before dark for much of the year. Planting and growing crops is even more out of reach for them."
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But it doesn't have to be. Nambalirwa-Lugudde, who grew up with farming in her childhood in Uganda, took quite naturally to the school's agricultural mission. "It's essential for kids to see that you can grow food anywhere. In my culture, it was just part of growing up; but these kids have virtually no connection to the land, and to the possibilities it brings."
Land brings food, and food is life, the couple insists. Old tires at the unique school are repurposed as planters, extending the school's gardens. "We've been talking about it and I think we could more than triple the current growing space," says Welch. "For the past several years, it's been more like an experiment and a teaching exercise. But we're looking toward maybe growing an appreciable amount of food."
Even watering the crops is an opportunity for learning. The gardens are largely fed by rain barrels and several ground pumps that keep the low-lying school dry...most of the time, says Welch. "Back in the day people built cities on swamps and just filled them in--Salem is a prime example. People built wherever they could. Actually, they're still doing it, unfortunately."
"Being a year-round school is key to how it all comes together," says Lugudde. "The kids have a chance to see it all through from seed to harvest. And we haven't even begun to exploit our inside space." This year looks like it will indeed be the best year for planting so far, she explains. A shift in strategy may have helped. After years of unsuccessful crops in the front of the school, Welch and Lugudde and the kids decided to use that space as a perennial garden, a memorial to the school's founder, Patricia Jennings-Welch.
The road that runs in front is a state highway, route 1A, and road salt and other contaminants make the soil right along the road a bit difficult to till. The change seems to have paid off, as Lugudde proudly poses the children with the first of their bounty in early August. "Almost all kids are out of school right now, and ours are beginning to harvest their crops. It's very rewarding."
The school's efforts are not unnoticed. Every year GHS enters exhibits in the Topsfield Fair, the oldest agricultural fair in the country. While most of their local fame has been for their decorated pumpkin exhibits, Fair staff invited the school to be part of a new Green Pavillion this Fall along with other green-oriented businesses. The school will sell its own handmade paper and soap, along with many other examples of how Lugudde and her charges repurpose elements from their everyday urban environment to make beautiful art.
"Growing food is just part of the impulse that tells us we can make so many things ourselves," she says. "Right now I'm working on sculptures using cable wire. It's a wonderful thing."