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GW Elementary students grow what they eat

ELEANOR, W.Va. -- In a multi-purpose room at Putnam County's George Washington Elementary, Olivia Faulkner, 7, gestures excitedly at a diagram of the water cycle.

"When water gets really hot, it evaporates," she says, her finger following an arrow to a crayon cloud. "Precipitation is when it falls down into the soil. Either on our heads or in the soil ..."

Down the hallway, fifth-graders Mackenzie Call and Kayla Keblesh tell their friends how plants reproduce and grow.

"Plants use xylem to move materials like sugar up, and they use phloem to move materials like sugar toward the roots," Keblesh explains.

Outside, 9-year-old Riley Long hoists a freshly uprooted turnip in the air for his teachers to see.

"Look!" he says.

Riley's turnip was grown in the elementary school's new high tunnel, the most recent addition to the school's curriculum -- and its menu.

GW Elementary held an open house Thursday morning for parents and the community to see the recently constructed high tunnel, a type of temporary greenhouse made of polyethylene that holds heat from the sun. Students in kindergarten through the fifth grade have spent weeks cultivating peas, beets, cabbage, lettuce, carrots and other "cool-weather" vegetables currently in season.

Chuck Talbot, the West Virginia University Extension Service agriculture and natural resources agent for Putnam County, said this project is the first of its kind in the county, and he hopes the hands-on experience will spark a greater interest in learning and health with the children.

"Everyone knows our specialty crop is actually our kids," Talbot said. "That's how I approach it. This is the time to get them excited and to cultivate that interest. A lot of these kids are taking this home; they're starting their own gardens with their parents."

Talbot received a Specialty Crop Block Grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture worth $12,000 and approached several schools before GW Elementary agreed to pilot the program. Several state and national mandates, including the Feed to Achieve Act passed by the state Legislature this year, will mean a greater emphasis on nutrition in schools, something WVU extension agent and nutritionist Sarah Sturgill said is key to developing positive attitudes about food as an adult.

"The kids are trying the vegetables; they're trying things like turnips and radishes and things they might not try otherwise," she said. "We talked about what they liked and what they didn't like, and why they should keep trying things even if they don't like them right now."

The high tunnel is the newest innovation in GW's teaching initiatives. According to principal Mary Beth Myers, the school has implemented other new programs to introduce interactive learning to the students.

Globally Prepared Students, or GPS, is a program the school developed for its kindergarten, first- and second-graders two years ago that teaches 18 separate units on subjects such as organisms, government, mapping and directions, solids and liquids, and other science and social studies areas that correspond with state standards. Students can choose what subject they want to learn about every eight weeks, and the 18 units are completed over the course of three years.

"Parents tell me that's what they come home and talk about. Now, it's the high tunnel and GPS -- that's what they go home and tell their parents about," Myers said.

Ten Putnam County master gardeners oversaw the high tunnel's construction. They built the raised beds and helped the children select what plants they would grow.

"We're kind of the workforce," said Kathy Walker, president of the Master Gardeners of Putnam County. "The day we built the raised beds it was so neat -- four of us came and thought, 'we'll get a few of them built today.' It was like an Amish barn-raising. People came from everywhere with all of their tools. I think we counted 17 parents at one time. We built every one of the beds and had them filled with soil in three and a half hours. It was wonderful."

The vegetables the students have grown have been incorporated in the school's salad bar at lunch, and flowers grown in the high tunnel have been used to fill the pots in front of the school. Myers said math and science units have been seamlessly incorporated into the students' learning experience in a way that is fun and interactive.

"It's not sitting still and doing something out of a book. It is active learning," she said. "The students are always excited, and they're very engaged."Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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