The novel coronavirus has transformed the world. It has shuttered schools across the nation and forced students and teachers to figure out what learning will look like now and in the future. Education—at least for the moment—is characterized by access to screens and technology and challenges the way teachers engage with some subject matter. For instance, it’s much harder to create meaningful learning experiences around environmental issues as students and teachers are asked to stay indoors for the rest of the school year. As this transition continues to take shape, we caught up with the team at Furr High School, an XQ school that places environmental justice at its core.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, food was an easy thing to take for granted. Things, of course, are different now. The onset of the pandemic spurred restaurants to close. Grocery stores are considered essential businesses. Beans and pasta and eggs temporarily vanish every few days. What was once everywhere became suddenly tenuous.
Yet, at Furr High School, an XQ school located in Houston and just east of a tangle of highway interchanges and in the shadow of refineries and petrochemical plants, food—and where it comes—from, has helped define the school’s mission. Furr puts environmental justice at the center of everything it does. “It’s important that our students understand where they live, what the issues are, and what we can all do about it,” said principal Steven Stapleton. “Our community is the epicenter of a big urban city facing a number of environmental and social justice issues, like food deserts, gentrification, polluted air and water, flooding, and climate change. These are not abstract issues—they’re right here, right now, every day.”
While access to food everywhere is inextricably altered by social distancing, the neighborhood where Furr is located is one that has been long-defined by food deserts—economically disadvantaged areas where access to healthy food is limited and can affect the health of residents.
To help combat that scarcity and to provide its students with opportunities for hands-on, agriculturally focused learning, the team at Furr founded a community garden on a half-acre of land in the adjacent 900-acre Herman Brown Park, in 2016.
Funded in part by an initial $20,000 grant from the National Recreation and Park Association and maintained by the Furr High School Green Ambassador program, the garden and orchards give students the opportunity to—in the words of Juan Elizondo, Career and Technical Educator of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at Furr— “tackle environmental injustices and become the green hub of their community.”
Getting the garden started took ingenuity and hard work. When the soil proved incapable of supporting the fruit and vegetables the students wanted to grow, the students connected with local tree trimming contractors and collected wood chips, which they brought to the garden “rake by rake, and hoe by hoe” to layer up an alternative soil source.
In 2017, that same ingenuity was called on again with the opening of Furr’s new campus and the creation of a campus-based garden, whose plots took shape in the form of fire rings. These plots provide the 200 students in Furr’s Principles of Agriculture class with a place to “actively plant, learn, and see how to grow foods organically.”
STRENGTH IN COMMUNITY AND PARTNERSHIP
Learning about environmental justice and putting it into action doesn’t happen on its own. It takes the input and guidance of community members and organizations to fully flesh out: “I think when we hear the phrase ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ It sounds almost mythical. We really lost that in this society, and our school is trying to get that back going again,” said Elizondo.
One of Furr’s sustaining partnerships has come from the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S), a Houston-based non-profit dedicated to “providing community members with the tools necessary to create sustainable, environmentally healthy communities by educating individuals on health concerns and implications arising from environmental pollution.”
In the words of Yvette Arellano, Senior Staff, Policy Research & Grassroots Advocate at T.E.J.A.S., “It’s been awesome for us to be able to partner together with Furr, and be able to shed some truth and break their reality a little bit and say, ‘Look, here are these problems and issues with systems. Here’s the problem with trying to address those issues in an equitable approach with folks who don’t necessarily look like you or share your backgrounds.’”
The garden has shaped not only the kids who work directly in the garden, but also students around the school. For instance, engineering students and math students work to better the school, by asking questions like, ‘How are we going to better outfit this garden?’
KEEPING THE GARDEN GOING
Presently, teachers like Juan and Manuel Reyes steward the Furr community garden along with volunteers from T.E.J.A.S., like Yvette and Nalleli Hidalgo.
In this remote setting where the four walls of the classroom simply don’t exist, Juan asked himself a simple question: How do we bring our students and environmental justice into the virtual realm?
To try to do that, Juan went live one night when he and his fellow stewards were tending to the community garden. The reaction was inspiring. Students and teachers alike were glad to see that people were still taking care of Furr’s community garden. “The reaction was so good, that I just started doing lives more often, and creating more updates—taking videos and photos to show how the gardens are progressing, to show and continue that narrative—in order to tell students ‘Hey, even though you’re not here, this is still happening, we are still taking care of this.’”
“The next steps for the garden is to plan out when it’s ready to harvest, and if we’re still on lockdown, figuring out how we’re going to get that food out to our students, and to our community members and food drives,” explained Juan.
More than that, for students, being able to see people care for and tend to their community garden has been an uplifting sight. “Occasionally, students will take an afternoon walk to the community garden just to peak in, since the parks are all shut down. Usually, there’s a friendly person on the inside waving back at them saying, ‘It’s going to be over soon.’”
RISING TO THE OCCASION
As isolation and distance become the new normal, the home garden is no longer just a fun thing to do during a trying time, it is also a source of independence harkening back to the Victory Gardens planted during WWII. In the words of Juan, independence is exactly why a curriculum like Furr’s is so important:
“The idea is that you build up a student’s confidence so much through these experiences that when something comes up like this, they jump to the occasion with a solution. They jump to the occasion with a plan of action, not just despair. We need to embed into our curriculum, into our schools’ programming, learning that is meaningful and empowering, that way our students can rise to the occasion. Not be citizens of despair.”
As we continue to chart our courses through this newest of territories, it’s more important than ever to do all we can to support the young learners in our lives. That means reinforcing the fundamental truth that they have the tools to get through this period of uncertainty. Further, we must remind them that there are people like them and the teachers at Furr who are working to ensure that there is light at the end of the tunnel and when they get there, their projects and opportunities for learning will still be there.
We have over 100 fruit trees planted on our campus. We have oranges, lemons, grapefruit, pomegranate, apples, apricot, figs, you name it, we most likely have it. From blueberries to berries, to pecans, to persimmons, bananas. We have a lot of trees.
Right now, in our class, in our school we have over 500 kids actively taking agriculture class. So, those classes they involve, the first class is Principles of Agriculture, the second one is Wildlife, the third one is Forestry, and the fourth one is Advanced Pano Soil.
ARE YOU A TEACHER AND WANT TO SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCE TEACHING REMOTELY? OR, HAVE RESOURCES AND TIPS TO HELP TEACHERS NAVIGATE THIS NEW SETTING? SEND AN EMAIL TO [email protected].