U.S. Department of Education Visits Ford Elementary on Prestigious 2017 Green Schools Tour

The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) visited Ford Elementary School September 19 as part of its national 2017 Green Strides Tour. Second graders work in the school’s pollinator garden and research ways to save the Monarch butterfly.

A creek trickles alongside the boardwalk that winds through the woods on the Ford Elementary School campus. This natural setting creates an ideal outdoor classroom for learning about habitats and the clean up of waterways. On another part of the campus, third graders record their observations in journals about worms, while second graders take steps to save the Monarch butterfly.

Ford Elementary students conduct hands-on learning in more than eight school garden spaces, which the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) recently included on the department’s national 2017 Green Strides Tour. Ford was one of only eight Georgia schools featured on this year’s tour, which focused on “Taking Learning Outside.”

“You can’t really come up with a better example of taking learning outside than Ford Elementary,” said Andrea Falken, director of the USDOE Green Ribbon Schools program. “Everything from social studies to math to English is covered in their various gardens, and it is just beautiful to be here.”

The USDOE named Ford Elementary a Green Ribbon School in 2013, thanks to Ford’s efforts to reduce environmental impact, improve health and wellness, and teach environmental education.

Falken, who has toured numerous Green Schools across 19 states, was most impressed by the expansiveness of Ford’s outdoor space. The elementary school sits on more than 40 acres and uses more than 60 percent of the grounds for environmental education and habitat protection.

“I think what was really impressive at [Ford Elementary] is everywhere you turn there is a different outdoor learning opportunity whether [it’s] chickens, the social studies garden, the math garden, the English garden, or the Monarch butterfly project,” Falken added.

Every time Gretchen Gigley visits Ford Elementary, she is “blown away and inspired” by what she sees. She joined Falken on the tour of Ford’s outdoor space on September 19.

“I usually come away from here very energized,” said the strategic partnership manager for the Green Schools Alliance. “Working with a national organization, one thing that really sticks out about Ford is their collaboration across disciplines. It is really amazing.”

Gigley views the Ford staff as national leaders on how teachers integrate work across grades and subjects.

Ashley Miller is one of the teachers Gigley heard from during the USDOE Green Strides Tour. Miller explained how she teaches third graders about the different habitat regions in Georgia by using a repurposed area once referred to as the “dump pile.”

Miller and her students helped transform the unwanted area into an outdoor space that incorporates all of the third grade teaching standards into one garden.

“It is not just the habitats that we cover,” said Miller. “We really pull in the rocks and minerals that are found in each habitat, the animals, too, as well as the weathering and erosion.”

After the recent tropical storm rolled through the area, the third graders were able to study the impact of the weather on their garden space.

“The hands-on [work] has really improved the [students’] grades in the classroom and on testing,” advocated the third grader teacher.

Falken, who led the Green Strides Tour, shared the Ford teacher’s opinion about outdoor spaces helping students succeed. From Falken’s experience, students learn more when they are working with their hands.

One of Miller’s favorite parts of taking the students outside is seeing the children take ownership of the garden. She sees their passion and their pride grow as a result of working in the garden.

She said, “They love it!”

Gigley described teachers like Miller as humble and trusting of their students. She said that trust and integration across grades is really difficult for many schools to do.

Inspired by the other gardens at Ford, Miller intends to expand the habitat garden by adding more plants and other features specific to each Georgia habitat.

When Miller’s third graders advance to fourth grade, they will learn about caring for the environment. This year’s fourth grade class will take what they learned from caring for the school’s nature trail and help clean up a local river just like students did for the school’s creek. In fifth grade, the students take their gardens indoors to learn about hydroponics, the method of growing plants without soil. They’ll also manage the school’s victory garden, which sits atop the hill at the entrance of the school campus and is modeled after the community gardens that sprouted after WWII. Students taste what they grow and share some of the produce with community groups.

After touring Ford’s expansive outdoor space, Falken recognized that the elementary school community, including teachers, students, and parents, obviously invested a great deal of time and labor.

As a result of their efforts, the USDOE representative described Ford as a “standout stop” on the 2017 Green Strides Tour.

Watch video from the Ford Elementary Green Stride Tour: goo.gl/GZ6HxH