Local Trends Demonstrate School Garden Vulnerability
Nacogdoches Independent School District school gardens illustrate the need for support to ensure programmatic sustainability
Research and local trends exemplify a crucial link between staff and programmatic sustainability to maintain school garden programs. School garden participation, among public schools in Nacogdoches, Texas has fluctuated drastically since their inception 20 years ago due to the lack of a paid coordinator and administrative buy-in.
School garden and environmental education programs are vital to providing students with hands-on, experiential learning opportunities that are proven to improve retention, engagement, and testing outcomes. Today in Nacogdoches, all K-5 students enjoy environmental education field trips with Stephen F. Austin State University SFA Gardens. A smaller percentage—roughly 1% of NISD students each year—have a unique, interdisciplinary and place-based education opportunity with their school garden program. Garden programs are implemented by volunteers or teachers going above-and-beyond, totaling roughly 2,000 hours annually dedicated to teaching students and maintaining gardens. This is incredible work, however over-reliance on volunteers can lead to programmatic vulnerability, as we can see in the graph below.
Local school garden trends:
NISD has experienced the impacts of this over-dependency on volunteers throughout the past two decades. This graph illustrates the lack of sustainable school garden programs amid a landscape of frequent volunteer and teacher turnover, coupled with the lack of existing support structures.
Some contextual background to the graph above:
We see peak involvement in school gardening among Nacogdoches K-12 schools include the following periods: 1999-2002, when an SFA interdisciplinary graduate student created district-wide K-5 school garden and teacher-training programs (which were not sustained by teachers after she graduated); 2010-2013, when grant-funded education consultants and a university intern revitalized school garden programs; and again from 2014-present, when a network of community groups and volunteers supported by Texas A&M grant funding filled the role of coordinating and funding school gardens. In a district with high teacher turnover, unfortunately, the pattern demonstrates clearly that garden programs discontinue when key garden leaders transition from the school. These data confirm the crucial necessity of adequate staff, funding, and administrative buy-in to sustain these programs.
Research confirms these trends.
The vulnerability of school garden programs is a universal trend; research indicates that a lack of funding, administrative buy-in, over-reliance of volunteers, and a lack of training as potential sources for discontinued programs. When researchers published Obstacles for school garden program success, they determined the following obstacles as most prominent across a national sampling of 76 school garden programs:
Shortages of time, resources, and support (i.e., too much additional work for teachers, lack of funding, insufficient green space, insufficient support from administrators and colleagues, lack of long-term volunteers).
Inadequate skills and qualifications (i.e., lack of confidence, expertise and experience in gardening and garden-based education).
Challenges with the education sector (i.e., challenges with large class size and dominance of performance-based pedagogy).
The requirements of school curricula (i.e., challenges identifying links to educational objectives and standards; lack of curricular support that links to academic standards).
Concerns for health and safety (i.e., issues of liability and risk management).
The risk of discontinuation among garden programs is unfortunate: students are disappointed by the closure of their garden, the outdoor learning space lacks appropriate maintenance, and most importantly, students and teachers lose out on impactful experiential learning opportunities.
Fortunately, there are many pathways to success that mitigate these barriers.
If we examine our school garden programs as a forest eco-system, we see new growth of sapling trees without the benefit of a forest canopy layer. Canopy trees provide necessary elements to new growth: shade, water retention, nutrient-dense soil, and a resource sharing fungal network within their vast spreading root systems. Currently, we need an NISD administrative canopy that can nurture these school garden saplings so they can thrive, even during times of stress and transition. The fruits of these saplings will enrich countless inhabitants of our beloved ecosystem: our students, teachers, volunteers, and parents will all delight in this harvest… and our district will enjoy the rippling effects of strong community-wide relationships.
School Garden Coordination: A Vision of "Canopy Support" for NISD School Garden Programs
We envision a district funded, full-time environmental education coordinator for NISD K-6 schools, along with support team staff (may cut costs by utilizing SFA work study students). Their responsibilities may include the following:
Coordinate with teachers, volunteers, and SFA work-study students to facilitate program schedules, waivers, and safety measures
Serve as a liaison between curriculum specialists and science teachers, extending learning beyond the classroom with experiential learning (STEAM, project-based, hands-on, place-based education)
Support and fund ongoing needs of school garden maintenance and materials
Collaborate with A&M AgriLife, SFA Gardens, and/or other environmental education consultants to facilitate teacher trainings
Build relationships among stakeholders, partners and donors
Capture grant funding
As we near a new decade of educating our children, (incidentally, my youngest son will be in the graduating class of 2029,) I look forward to an exciting chapter ahead of wide-reaching, fully supported, experiential learning opportunities for our young saplings.
 Texas A&M Nacogdoches County AgriLife Extension Learn, Grow, Eat, & Go! school garden survey statistics, 2016-2019.
 Ohly, Heather et al. “A systematic review of the health and well-being impacts of school gardening: synthesis of quantitative and qualitative evidence.” BMC Public Health. Vol. 16, No. 286. 2016.
 John M. Diaz, Laura A. Warner, Susan Webb & Debra Barry (2019) Obstacles
for school garden program success: Expert consensus to inform policy and practice, Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 18:3, 195-206, DOI: 10.1080/1533015X.2018.1450170