What started as a teacher’s small plot to give students a chance to explore science outside the classroom has turned into a 3-acre vision for Connally Independent School District students to address a food desert in their area, district officials said.

Through a recent $20,000 grant and with the help of donors and volunteers, Connally Elementary School teachers and students will start the school year building a meditation and community garden behind the campus parking lot.

Teachers, maintenance workers and volunteers spent the past few weeks clearing brush and setting up the start of several teaching stations throughout the space, which was used as a homestead years ago, said Teresa Kelm, a fifth-grade science teacher who helped apply for the grant with help from Region 12 Education Service Center representatives.

“This started because I have a master’s in nutrition and I am very concerned with where childhood obesity is going and the fact that they don’t have a lot of access to nutritious foods,” Kelm said. “In one of my classes, we learned about food deserts, and I realized this area is a food desert. If somebody didn’t have transportation, they could not walk to healthy food. All they have is the nearest convenience store.”

A food desert is a part of a community, usually in an impoverished area, where there’s a lack of grocery stores, farmers markets or healthy food providers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For the neighborhoods surrounding Connally ISD, the closest grocery store is H-E-B in Bellmead, along Interstate 35, Kelm said.

The original plan was for students to learn how they could apply math and science to everyday experiences, like building garden beds and growing fruits and vegetables. But when the school district gave campus officials permission to use all 3 acres, teachers quickly realized the garden’s role could be broader.

“I want them to maybe be able to have a dinner at the end of the year for their parents from the garden and talk about the nutrition from the food they’re eating and say, ‘We grew this and we can do this at home,’ ” Kelm said. “Even though you don’t have access to a grocery store, at least you can have a small garden to grow fresh products.”

The plan now includes a meditation area for children who need somewhere to calm down, an orchard, a farmers market to learn about running a business by selling food to residents and a pocket prairie to learn about native plants and insects.

The vision also includes a small agriculture area to learn about farm animals, growing crops and what living on a homestead once was like. Art students will also help create and decorate garden beds, benches or projects related to history or culture, Kelm said.

“I’m really excited about it. She has such a plan in her head, and if we can make (the vision in) her head happen, it would be awesome,” fellow science teacher Marie Clyatt-Larson said. “I’m looking forward to the grand spectrum of it all. It’s so much bigger than when she first told me about it. I was thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a little garden.’ But having a pioneer area, the zen area and the garden area, there’s so many more opportunities than, ‘We’re going to try and grow some carrots.’ ”

‘Kid-centric’ district

This is Clyatt-Larson’s first year to teach at Connally, and with 12 years of teaching in four districts so far, the garden is the best representation of a school district being “kid-centric” so far, she said.

“Anytime you start a new school, there’s an anticipation,” Clyatt-Larson said. “Everything’s been so great so far. I haven’t met the kids yet, but it’s always the temperament of the adults and how adults interact that show how a campus is going to function, and so far, Connally has been by far the most welcoming and open.

“The garden just symbolizes that and how they’re really about the kids and everybody working together.”

She spent part of Wednesday helping Kelm, and Tuff Shed employees set up a small barn toward the back of the property. The barn sits near a newly-placed small cabin that will help with social studies lessons and instruction on formulas for area, volume and perimeter, Kelm said.

Housing chickens

The pioneer part of the garden will also house chickens and host an occasional visit from cows, goats, sheep and pigs, Kelm said.

“This area used to be farm land and ranch land, and bringing it back definitely gets students interested in that,” she said. “We plan on working with the ag department at the high school, too.”

The garden will be open to all Connally ISD students, and Kelm hopes students from other districts will eventually come out to help. The area might also include a walking trail and fitness stations measured out by students, and a weather station for climate-related lessons. Kelm is looking for donors and other grants to help fund the garden’s growth, she said.

“This is going to offer opportunities for multi-disciplinary learning,” Principal Gina Pasisis said. “That’s when learning makes sense for children, when they can make connections across content.”

School starts Thursday for Connally ISD. To donate to the garden or volunteer help, email tkelm@connally.org.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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