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Greater Newark Conservancy and School Gardening

by Jane Califf

Newark, New Jersey, with a population of 277,000, has a shockingly small amount of open space for recreation.  A section of the Newark Master Plan Re-examination Report for February 2009 states, “There are several pockets of Newark where a large percentage of children are without access to direct, usable open space and recreation.”  A color-coded map shows these areas where over 25% of the population is 5 to 17 years old.1


The Greater Newark Conservancy is an important organization working to change this unfortunate reality.  It took a rubble-strewn abandoned piece of land and turned it into a plant and tree-filled environmental learning center where workshops are provided for the community and school classes.


When I was leading the weekly Student Teacher Seminar in the Department of Urban Education at Rutgers University, Newark campus, most semesters I would take student teachers on a visit to encourage them to look to the community in which their school is located for learning opportunities.


Each time, students were impressed and inspired by seeing what the Greater Newark Conservancy had accomplished, i.e., an area where Native American vegetables were grown, a replica of Nelson Mandela’s jail cell where he grew vegetables in pots for part of his 27-year imprisonment; a wide variety of native plants, herbs and flowers grown in and outside a green house.


One of the most awe-inspiring sights on one visit was a collection of milkweed crawling with monarch butterfly caterpillars.  We were totally amazed that monarchs flying over Newark, with its wide swaths of pavements and buildings, could spot this small stand of plants which they needed to lay their eggs on.


One student teacher wrote in her journal about the value of her visit: 


“…I thought it was a great idea bringing us to the Conservancy.  It really made many student teachers think outside the box when dealing with students that live in a city.  I think that it offers a great opportunity to show how plants and animals come together with the earth and make up an environment almost anywhere.  I was incredibly impressed with the little waterfall and pond that they have set up that actually shows how littering and pollution can affect our environment.  I enjoyed today’s seminar and hope to visit more places that help us realize there are other ways to teach besides being in a classroom.…”


A graduate of Rutgers/Newark, Joe DeRisi, was fortunate to enjoy a collaboration with the Conservancy beginning in his first year of teaching at the Harriet Tubman School in Newark.  In a nearby derelict lot, the Conservancy had created a garden for children.  His second grade was one of the classes chosen to participate in what is called a “Living Laboratory.”  The Conservancy describes it in this way:


“…Living Labs are used to teach school children about the environment along with math, science and literacy.  This program helps students develop an appreciation for the environment while learning what steps they an take to protect it.  Living Labs range in size from several city lots, to small school courtyards or flower barrels on the block near a school… As students plant and raise seeds, test soil, compost weeds and hunt for insects, they gain insight into, and appreciation for, the interdependence of ecosystems and the important role they can play in habitat preservation.” 2


An environmental educator regularly visited Mr.DeRisi’s class providing them with a ten-minute lesson focusing on the learning goal for the day, i.e., parts of a plant, urban wildlife, water cycle, maintaining the garden, butterflies and other insects.  Then, for half an hour, the children went into the garden to observe and to work at such tasks as weeding and planting.


(The lead science teacher grew vegetables in the garden and made salads with children to introduce them to more healthy eating habits.  This was a successful addition to the “Living Lab” approach to environmental learning.  Unfortunately, the position was ended because of budget cuts.)


Mr. DeRisi’s class loved being outdoors: 


“Being able to grow their own flowers was a big deal for my kids.  It gave them the opportunity to have ownership of something that was truly their own.  In the neighborhood where I teach, there isn’t any place that a family could grow any type of plants, so without this program, the children wouldn’t be exposed to much in nature. 


“One of the major things that I noticed is that when we went to the garden, the children were really excited and wanted to work together. They knew the purpose for going into the garden and always looked for new things, i.e., flowers, insects and most of all bird nests.  They just loved seeing all of these new things in nature.  Many of them had never seen bird nests, so this was a great wow factor to them.


“This experience helps make science real for students that simply reading from a book does not do.  We as teachers take for granted that our students know what we are talking about, but without concrete experience, such as working directly with nature in our garden, that may not be so.”3


Mr. DeRisi reports that in this very low-income neighborhood, the garden has never been vandalized.  There is a sign by the entrance that says “Harriet Tubman School,” so the community knows that the garden belongs to the school, and grateful for some greenery, has respected it. 




1 “Shifting Forward 2015 – Newark master Plan Re-Examination Report,” February, 2009, Vol. II, Figure 3.13:  “Access to Open space and Recreation.”


2 Greater Newark Conservancy website


3 Written and verbal information provided by Mr. DeRisi

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