HAVERHILL — A warm and sunny Tuesday greeted students in a special needs program at Haverhill High School who'd been eagerly waiting for a nice day to plant their courtyard garden.

Some walked out of their classrooms while others rolled out in wheelchairs to greet their helpers -- students in the school's Jr. ROTC program.

They gathered on a beautiful day to plant a variety of fruits and vegetables in raised garden beds that are accessible to all students in the school's Multiple Support Program.

They planted carrots, onions and potatoes in their stew garden; peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, basil and chives in their salsa garden, or strawberries, blueberries, rhubarb, raspberries and eggplant in their berry garden.

Everything they needed was available, even gardening tools, which they store in an over-sized mailbox mounted on a post.

Student Noah Cronin slipped on a pair of vinyl gloves before he began the job of planting tomato seedlings in the salsa garden. After each little plant was gently dropped into a hole, he patted down the soil carefully yet as firmly as he could.

"We grew vegetables last year and made salsa, which we ate," Noah said with a huge smile. "It was pretty good."

Educational Support Professional Nancy Burke launched the school's Learning Garden program five years ago. About 25 students are taking part in the program this year.

She and her students have received local, state and national news coverage and honors after renovating a neglected school courtyard into a handicap-accessible outdoor learning lab filled with wheelchair accessible raised-bed vegetable and berry gardens.

Burke said this year's seedlings were donated by high school site council member Larry Trevette, and seeds were donated by the Hart Seed Company.

The Haverhill Education Foundation (formerly Haverhill Foundation for Excellence in Education) donated $300 towards this new effort. The group had donated to the vegetable garden last year as well.

"We were waiting for the weather to break so we could get everything planted," Burke said. 

Students also planted sunflowers, corn and beans in other areas of the courtyard that Jr. ROTC members prepared ahead of time, and they planted flowers for decoration.

"Some things they just can't physically do, so we're here to help them," said Kyra Sevene, a senior and member of the Jr. ROTC program. "We've been dropping by after school, on weekends and during school breaks to help prepare the area for planting."

For Jr. ROTC member Katja Alford, also a senior, the courtyard has become a safe haven in times of emotional upheaval for her and other students who come to this garden oasis in the middle of the school to enjoy the solitude.

"When I first came out here more than year ago, Miss Burke was struggling to get it ready for planting so I got the ROTC program involved," Alford said. "She needed the physical labor that her students could not provide."

Jr. ROTC instructor Henry Danis oversees the work done by his recruits.

"It's a good team effort with kids in the program who love having us as helpers," he said.

Alford said the courtyard is more than a garden.

"It's become my sanctuary, my safe place and for many students it's a nice place to be if you're feeling overwhelmed and stressed," she said. "What Miss Burke did here is amazing."

Amanda Huberdeau, a special education teacher with the program, said planting vegetables is part of the curriculum as it provides hands-on experience. It also helps teach students where their food comes from and how what they grow relates to a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables.

"Before we did our planting we did a unit on gardening, working together, building community, healthy eating and the food pyramid," Huberdeau said. "We also have a program that tallies up how many fruits and vegetables our students eat every day."

As her students are usually in school during the summer, they get to harvest whatever has ripened.

Huberdeau said they cook with what they grow while learning basic culinary skills such as cutting and chopping. They shop wisely by using discount coupons and are also studying English, science, math and life skills.

And come fall, they harvest their crops and send the best looking vegetables to the nation's oldest agricultural fair, the Topsfield Fair, for judging.

Last year, just before the opening of the fair, students picked what they grew in their stew and salsa gardens, including tomatoes, red peppers, chives, corn, sunflowers, lettuce, beans, radishes, heirloom red potatoes, purple potatoes, white potatoes and carrots — all of which they entered in the fair's junior vegetable category under special needs.

They won first place blue ribbons for their plum tomatoes, purple potatoes, white potatoes and sunflowers. They also won second, third, fifth and sixth place medals for other vegetables they grew.

Haverhill High's gardening program is part of a national farm-to-school movement, where garden-based learning is happening across the country. Burke is at the forefront of this movement, according to the nonprofit Massachusetts Farm to School program

The program began with a grant from the Massachusetts Teachers Association to support students' farm-to-school work. The National Education Association developed a pilot program to try to address student obesity rates using student engagement in school gardens and helping students prepare healthy, nutritious dishes for themselves and each other.

The project provides technical assistance and resource materials to groups engaged in school garden programs through a NEA grant to the MTA.

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