HAVERHILL — A vegetable and berry garden at Haverhill High School captured the attention of education officials from Washington and the Boston area, who dropped by on Tuesday to see firsthand what makes this a model that schools across the country can follow.
The school's Learning Garden, which took root in 2012 with a single raised bed has expanded every year since to include a salsa garden, a stew garden and a berry garden.
It was designed with raised beds, making it accessible to all students at the school, particularly those with special needs, who plant, care for and harvest the crops. They also learn to cook with their bounty, and they enter their vegetables into the Topsfield Fair each year for judging.
"This project has really been a labor of love for Nancy Burke and her students," Principal Beth Kitsos announced to an audience that included Timothy Barchak of the National Education Association in Washington, D.C.; Jesse Graytock of the NEA Foundation in Washington, D.C.; Erik Champy, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association; and Leslie Marsland and Bobby Travers of the MTA Education Support Professionals Committee.
Kitsos said that to date, six benches were replaced, and six picnic tables were added along with a weather station and a new orchard with apple, pear, plum trees and a cherry tree, as well as raspberry and blueberry bushes.
"Nancy's students are dreamers, doers and believers," Kitsos went on to say. "They saw a hidden gem in an overgrown courtyard and for six years have committed to creating a vision of beauty that improves with each new year."
Every spring since 2012, students with special needs who are enrolled in the school's multisupport and life skills program leave their classrooms to plant vegetable gardens under the watchful eye of Burke, an educational support professional who developed and introduced the program to the school.
Student participation in the garden program has tripled and now includes 77 students with special needs. They receive hands-on instruction in gardening and preparing vegetables and fruits they harvest from their gardens.
Tuesday's plantings included Swiss chard, peppers, tomatoes, baby pumpkins, carrots, potatoes and various herbs. And for the first time, Braille markers were added to the gardens to aid a blind student.
Burke's students got help from members of the school's Jr. ROTC program and members of Haverhill High School's new Garden Club.
Eugenia Degioia of Methuen said she had heard about the garden and reached out to Burke to offer her expertise as a member of the New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association.
Her biggest pumpkin to date hit the scale at 352 pounds.
Degioia said she had provided Burke with giant pumpkin seeds "of a good pedigree" and also had arranged for a recent visit by Woody Lancaster of Topsfield, who last year was crowned champion at the Topsfield Fair for his massive 2,003.5 pound pumpkin.
Lancaster tested the soil and offered Burke advice on growing a giant pumpkin.
"Nancy is a rare person who makes things happen," Degioia said. "You could say I'm now part of her growing support team."
Student Anthony Valenten, who has been with Burke since the beginning, is turning 22 this week, which means he is aging out of the program and will be attending another program outside of Haverhill High School.
"I like being outside and I like planting," Anthony said during his final planting. "I'm sad, I'll miss my friends and my teachers."
As students planted their crops, Barchak walked around the busy courtyard and commented on how unique Burke's program is and that it is gaining national attention.
He said the NEA has featured the program in several of its media outlets, while the NEA Foundation is holding this up as a model as well.
"Our various conferences around the country have also, at different times, featured this program," Barchak said. "We're taking a real interest in school gardens and the idea of kids in kindergarten through grade 12 getting more food that is locally sourced and fresh, so it fits in with a bigger perspective we have."
Graytock, grants manager for the NEA Foundation, said his program awarded Burke a $5,000 grant last year.
Burke said the grant paid for a wireless weather station, for picnic tables, to purchase fruit trees for the new orchard, as well as telescopes for the school's astronomy program, along with various learning materials.
"With a little bit of moxie, this program can be replicated anywhere," Graytock said. "This really is an educator led initiative and Nancy is the leader on this. I would not be here from D.C. were this not a big deal. I'm really fortunate to be able to be a small part of this."
The Haverhill Education Association recently awarded Burke a $250 "teacher mini-grant."
Burke said it will help pay for additional learning materials, new plants for the garden and new kitchen equipment such as adaptive knives for use by students with disabilities.
The Haverhill Garden Club presented Burke with a check for $100, which Burke plans to use to purchase additional materials for the orchard.
The school's garden program relies on grant money and donations for support, Burke said.
Now that the garden is planted, Burke is hoping to purchase water timers and dripline hoses, and replace a greenhouse that was destroyed by a storm this past winter.
"Another goal is to build a shed in the orchard, and purchase a wheelbarrow to replace one that broke," she said.
For more information or to donate to the garden program, call Haverhill High at 978-374-5700.