Alief ISD teacher creates gardening program to help students connect during pandemic

This week on Stronger Houston, we're taking it to school

ALIEF, Texas – Children all across the Houston area are continuing to feel the effects of the pandemic, even as we slowly make our way back to normalcy.

It has impacted every aspect of their lives, from education to their mental well-being. It’s been especially hard for some students in lower-income communities, but a new program at one school in Alief ISD is helping them flourish.

“Inner City Greens” is more than just a gardening club for kids. It puts a strong emphasis on social development and personal growth.

At Hicks Elementary School in Alief ISD, 84% of the student body is economically disadvantaged, according to principal Mary Kesler.

Gardening has become an extremely powerful teaching tool for all kinds of things.

“Not only are we learning academics, but we’re also building those skills that you’re going to need to survive in this world,” said Kyrstan McDuffie-Bass, founder of Inner City Greens.

McDuffie-Bass, a special education teacher at Hicks, created the program with a very specific goal in mind: to use the project-based learning method as a way to connect with and engage students.

“More importantly than ever, social and emotional is very important to our children,” McDuffie-Bass said.

The group gets together every Saturday morning for a couple of hours and does yoga and work in the garden.

“Growing our own foods... what does that look like? How do we start? What do we do? What do plants need,” McDuffie-Bass asked.

Each Saturday starts with a different theme that’s tied to the social and emotional component of the program.

“We’ve had lessons on self-esteem, we’ve had lessons on self-talk and setting goals,” said Kelly Davila, a 4th-grade teacher at Hicks.

Davila is in charge of those lessons.

“Even though you have all of these obstacles that other kids might not have, you can still do it. You can flourish and go out there and take over the world if you want,” Davila said.

The support for Inner City Greens continues to grow.

“She hooked me in from the very beginning. They had this idea of putting this program together that would be really unique, something I hadn’t seen before,” said Mary Kesler, principal at Hicks Elementary.

Launched in late February, the program, right now, caters only to 3rd and 4th graders at Hicks. Kesler said she’d like to develop it into something greater for the whole school.

Layla Randle and Favur Obembe, fourth-graders at Hicks, just finished their first eight-week program.

“Now that I’m in this program, I talk to people more in my class and in the garden with me, and we’re starting to become friends now,” Randle said. “The work is like, fun and makes you feel comfortable and happy and free,” Obembe said.

For these educators, just trying to make a difference and hearing that from the students has been their greatest joy.

“It’s very empowering and it feels good,” Davila said.

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