By Sam Nelson
Tucked away in Boston’s South End, surrounded by French-inspired boutiques and expensive coffee shops, sits the McKinley School. Though the school is often overlooked when compared to neighboring brownstones, its black iron gate stands with humble prestige.
The McKinley School has an unconventional approach to education. With a curriculum specifically geared toward students with special emotional, behavioral and learning needs, the school incorporates out-of-the-classroom techniques. By giving students a hands-on learning experience, students are engaged and can relate the lesson to the outside world. The school’s outdoor garden is an example of their outdoor learning strategy.
First conceived five years ago, the student-run garden grows a host of vegetables: kale, collards, basil, tomatoes, herbs, eggplants, tomatillos and peas.
“The McKinley kids really get involved in the whole process here,” said Laura Kakalecz, former Branch Out Program Manager. Kakalecz works with groups of McKinley third graders and middle schoolers every week in the garden.
According to Kakalecz, teachers discover new shades of their students’ personalities by exposing them to new experiences. “They do a lot of seeding, transplanting, watering, harvesting, and helping with the hydroponics system. The garden is an accessible outdoor space for learning, play, and healing, which engages students in a different way than classroom learning,” said Kakalecz.
Gardening is an extension of the students’ science curriculum – by participating in the planting and harvesting process, the students have the opportunity to observe the biological processes described by their teachers.
“McKinley has an awesome STEM program set-up, and its garden is a great extension of that,” said Kakalecz.
The garden’s harvested food goes to the Haley House, a soup kitchen near the McKinley School. The garden began as an idea proposed by Haley House and grew into a mutually beneficial partnership with McKinley. The students learn about the Haley House mission, to help individuals regain wholeness and economic independence, while broadening their understanding of science.
After a harvest, McKinley students often bring food directly to the Haley House kitchen. “The kids love passing by and knowing that what they’re growing is being cooked into meals for people who need it,” said Kakalecz. “Meeting partners outside the school helps them see how they are bigger than just themselves,” she said.
McKinley’s partnership with the Haley House teaches students about the intersectional nature of environmental awareness, food security and poverty. I’d say this is far more valuable than memorizing time tables or studying vocabulary terms. It’s a human experience.
“Food is our language,” said Kakalecz. And the students of McKinley are native speakers.