At Airport Heights Elementary, students are growing their own vegetables, feeding their community — and learning STEM along the way
On a snow-blown mid-March morning, as a bitter wind whipped across the Airport Heights Elementary parking lot, a small miracle was occurring: Spring had arrived.
Thanks to the school’s hydroponics systems, 72 plant starts thrived under heat lamps and surrounded by reflective mylar. As soon as the starts are ready, they will be relocated to the school’s new Living Wall, a self-contained vertical garden.
The Wall, built with the assistance of Lorrie Irwin from the Space Farming Institute, is part of a larger curriculum designed by Leann Roering, a Parent Resource Coordinator with CITC’s Cultural Foundations Program.
Foundations brings parent mentors into the school to provide supplemental classroom activities to Alaska Native and American Indian students. Alongside, teachers like Leann, Parent Mentors lead projects that blend culture and curriculum through hands-on learning. Foundations programs are also active at Russian Jacks Elementary and College Gate Elementary.
In 2020, Foundations purchased the hydroponics systems for Airport Heights Elementary, aiming to provide STEM exploration for students. But when Leann started working with the school, she saw a greater opportunity.
“I saw the hydroponics and I was like, okay, this is what we’re doing: We’re going to grow food for the school,” she recalled. “The thought was, how do we make this appealing to the students?”
Leann designed a curriculum around the hydroponics systems and the Living Wall that incorporates not only STEM, but nearly every subject her Foundations students study. Students will learn the history of growing food in the United States; they will connect the challenges of growing vegetables in Alaska with growing food in space on NASA’s Moon-to-Mars mission.
Parent Educators Sonya Shuravloff and Rose Marie Parks-Lee led the effort to collect milk jugs from the Recycling Center; CITC’s Fab Lab assisted fourth-graders with using scissors to cut the jugs into plant holders that would make up a large part of the Living Wall.
Though the hydroponics project started as an experiment, it quickly produced a nice harvest — sparking an idea from Airport Heights Principal Mike Webb: a subscription program through which area families could receive greens and herbs grown by the students.
In fall 2020, families had the opportunity to pay a small fee for subscription boxes; some school staff and neighborhood residents also subscribed. Subscriptions also included vegetables like tomatoes and carrots, outsourced from other organizations.
The project was a huge success.
“I never thought we’d be planting and growing at the capacity we’re doing these things,” Leann shared. “As a Title One school, we serve a lot of low income families. Being able to directly address something like childhood hunger is so awesome. As we keep growing and developing curriculum around the project, hopefully this is something other elementary schools can replicate for their communities.”
Just as the subscription program drew families and neighbors to the school, Leann hopes the Living Wall and other school-based gardening projects will be another way for the school to connect with the greater community.
One future project will incorporate foods of various cultures that students can grow themselves, taste, and explore.
“The dream is to provide a space for families to come in and plant the foods from their cultures,” Leann elaborated. “A lot of people don’t have room for a garden, so we revamped the garden beds behind the school. The Parent Educators who work with Foundations schools play such a huge role in these projects. It’s been wonderful to see them fall in love with hydroponics and harvesting.”