Planting seeds of math

Parents and students at Mitchell Elementary visit the school’s garden Thursday evening for the school’s annual harvest dinner.

The garden at Mitchell Elementary School has 1,500 feet of irrigation line, grows 400 vegetable plants and holds 80 tons of topsoil.

But don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz, unless you’re a third- or fourth-grader at the school. For those students, the garden has become a regular feature in class as part of their math and science lessons.

In last year’s state math testing, the school was weakest in measurement, school Principal Dirk Bedford said.

The urban farm makes sure students learn it. Third- and fourth-grade classes this year had to measure out its irrigation lines, make sure seeds had enough space and figure out how much acreage the farm was taking up.

And in this classroom, they don’t have such a wide margin of error.

“For them to have an opportunity to have to do (accurate measurements) to make it work on this project really gives them something to anchor to,” Bedford said.

Whether the garden program will have a measurable effect on the school’s test scores is not clear, but those will be made public in the fall, according to Bedford.

Three months ago, those lessons on measuring area came in handy for adults on the farm too, like Drew Harrison, executive director of the Green Heart Project, which operates the farm.

That’s when the farm’s area increased to an eighth of an acre; the growth was funded by $5,000 from a grant Boeing gave the College of Charleston for a farm-to-school initiative, Harrison said. Mitchell is acting as a pilot program in that project.

That’s a big jump from the series of 8.5-by-11 foot plots that had comprised the garden since it was started three years ago by the REV Food Group, which owns Taco Boy and other nearby restaurants. The restaurant group underwrites the Green Heart Project and pays for it to have a full-time employee, Karalee Nielsen, one of its partners, said.

The groups celebrated the increased acreage Thursday evening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that featured representatives of the school, College of Charleston, S.C. Department of Education and Boeing, including Tim Keating, Boeing’s senior vice president for government operations. It also hosted its annual Harvest Dinner, which showcased some of the garden’s produce.

With that new capacity, Mitchell Elementary’s cafeteria will show off the farm’s vegetables too, starting this fall, pending USDA Good Agricultural Practices certification. If the school achieves the certification, it will be the first in Charleston County to do so, Bedford said.

The program is catching on with students and teachers. David Wingard, a fourth-grade teacher who’s been at Mitchell for 10 years, participated in the program for the first time this year.

“I was skeptical at first, because instructional time is precious,” Wingard said. “But this has been my best class in 10 years.”