It has been said the greatest plans begin with the first step, and that’s exactly how it started for Haut Gap Middle School, a Title 1 school. In the fall of 2012, staff member Kit Fox built three garden beds on the school grounds as a quiet space for students. Today, thanks to that tiny garden and the go-green lessons it’s helped teachers share, Haut Gap is on its way to becoming the most sustainable school in Charleston County. Even though the school houses more than 500 people, it only produces 11 bags of trash per week.
Fox is a student support specialist for the Charleston-area Communities In Schools, which case-manages students at Haut Gap who are in jeopardy of dropping out.
After college, Fox worked on an organic farm in Costa Rica. When he returned to the state he wanted to utilize his in-depth agricultural knowledge to create both a safe space for the students and a self-sustaining means to provide them with healthier food choices. “The garden was something we all agreed would be a great asset to the school because of the agricultural history on Johns Island. We also hoped it might bring more parental involvement and allow the kids to be outside more,” Fox says.
Haut Gap Principal Travis Benintendo liked the proposed idea. “I want our students to be stewards of their environment,” Benintendo says. “When Kit came to me and asked if I was interested in building garden beds, not only was I interested, but I wanted to do everything I could to empower him and involve as many students as possible to make our school sustainable.”
The first beds were built in the fall of 2012 for the school’s Trident United Way Day of Caring project. Blackbaud soon jumped on board. The tech-company worked hand-in-hand with the students to build the beds and donated $700 toward its construction, while All Seasons Landscaping donated organic compost. The following year, employees from Blackbaud returned to build more raised beds and a platform for rain barrels.
But a garden doesn’t grow without care. Seventh grade science teacher Katie Schmenk was one of the staff members tasked with creating Haut Gap’s four-hour Saturday morning gardening class dubbed Sustainability 101. While she invites students she thinks would be interested in the garden, everyone is welcome to come. “There are always about 15 to 20 students for each class, and we have some regulars, too,” Schmenk notes. “The ones that come are pretty dedicated, though. We don’t provide rides for the students, so they have to really find a way to make it to school on a Saturday, and that’s pretty neat.”
During the first two hours of the class, students research gardening tips indoors, such as what to do if they want to plant cucumbers, how long it takes to grow, and how to nurture them. “We guide students to a few websites, but really we just let them loose,” Schmenk says. “This year we gave them paper with the bed dimensions, and as a math lesson, told them to figure out how to space out the plants,” she adds. “We’re there to help, but it’s more fun for the kids to work it out themselves and really take ownership of the garden.”
For Schmenk, coming up with more than just science lessons is simple. “Obviously, the science lessons are everywhere. We did a lot of composting this year and talked about pH since the soil was very acidic,” Schmenk says. “But we’d look up the history of vegetables and where they come from. We researched victory gardens and planted our own. The children created artwork based on the garden, and they looked up recipes in order to learn about healthier choices.”
The growing passion for the garden led Haut Gap to form — and Fox to become liaison of — the school’s award-winning Green Team, an initiative led by the Charleston County School District. Students who showed an interest in environmental stewardship and sustainability joined Fox in creating posters and teaching their fellow students about recycling, composting, and landfills. Students conducted dumpster assessments, monitored the compost bins and shared their findings with the student body.
Thanks to these eager kids, Haut Gap won Charleston County School District’s Green School award this past year and is well on its way to becoming the greenest school in Charleston County.
Even more exciting, the school is newly outfitted with a solar panel donated by Berkeley Electric Cooperative and Santee Cooper. “We’re the only school in Charleston County with the solar panel,” Benintendo says, noting that the panel helps offset the school’s electric bill. Berkeley Electric also generously set up a website for the students to monitor data from the panels.
“Students can compare how much energy the sun created one day compared to the next. It’s tangible,” says Benintendo. “Students get to not only read about solar energy in their books, but they get to go outside and see it happening firsthand.”
Robin Smith, a master reading teacher at Haut Gap, has used the garden for communication and literacy exercises. “The children can speak about a type of lettuce,” says Smith. “They can bring out their iPads and record how to get the lettuce out of the ground and then post it to the school website.” Smith wants to develop a true mission statement so that everyone in the school understands what the garden is and more teachers will want to get involved. “We are in the beginning phases of moving beyond what great schools do,” says Smith. She believes incorporating the garden into the classroom is all part of a comprehensive education. “We need to provide our students not only with the tools to be healthier and friendlier to our environment, but to understand the history of Johns Island and that we live in a culture that’s based on agricultural gifts,” she adds.
As for Fox, he would love nothing more than to get older Johns Island residents to impart their knowledge of the land’s farming, produce, soil, and weather to the students so that the island’s history isn’t lost. “Agriculture has been a part of Johns Island for hundreds of years, and this is a way to bring it back to our students,” Fox says. “The kids are really proud of what they’re doing, and it’s so great that they then go home and teach their families about it too.”
Now Benintendo has pushed the plan even further, asking Kiawah Partners, a real estate company, to help support an outdoor lab. “They loved the idea, and so they agreed to fund, build, and design the plans,” says Benintendo. “They couldn’t fund the whole project, but they gave the school start-up money and opportunities to fundraise.”
Once the outdoor facility is built, Clemson Extension will come in for phase two and put together a curriculum for the teachers. “The objective is to be Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified by next year,” Benintendo says, meaning the school will meet standards to harvest their own produce and serve it in the school cafeteria. This year, half of the produce was given to the community — students and teachers were encouraged to take home what they wanted and needed — and the other half was sold, the profits of which were donated back to the community’s Lowcountry Land Trust.
Everything is falling into place for Haut Gap as they await construction of the outdoor classroom which should hopefully be completed by January. Benintendo encourages every one of his teachers to become more hands-on in their green school. “Eventually I won’t be here, eventually Kit won’t be here, so we want to make these plans a part of the school,” Benintendo says. “We have an opportunity to preserve these things that make the quality of life better for all of us. It’s representative of Johns Island. It’s who we are. And it’s the right thing to do.”
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