Melissa Maya, left, a junior going in to her senior year at Abraham Lincoln High School, and Nataly Cauich, center, a fellow junior going in to her senior year at Lincoln, help second grader Dayanna Sanchez sift through composted soil in the garden at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School, where high school interns are mentoring young students through a green gardens initiative learning program, on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFUSD summer garden program trains teens, lets kids get their hands dirty

District’s internship program teaches kids to live more sustainably

Awestruck, Otto examined a pill bug through the magnifying glass of a “bug box” wedged between his index and thumb fingers.

Tuesday marked the first up close and personal encounters with the crustacean for the Flynn Elementary School second grade student.

“It’s so cool,” he said.

Abraham Lincoln High School senior Melissa Maya Cardona, a participant in San Francisco Unified School District’s summer internship program, explained to Otto and a group of his peers huddled around him in the garden of the Mission District school that bugs help to sustain the environment.

“We shouldn’t kill insects, they are helping us,” she said.

Along with learning about the role of insects in the natural ecosystem, students enrolled at Flynn’s summer school program shoveled dirt, pulled weeds and learned how to plant the makings of a summer salad as part of a new pilot program rolled out at four SFUSD elementary schools for the first time this summer.

The noon sun warmed a sliver of Flynn’s play yard that has been converted into a garden. At a table set up in one corner, several students were busy drawing the insects they observed, while others combed through rows of radish, kale, tomatoes and green peas planted four weeks ago.

Twice a week for six weeks, 13 high school student interns trained in how to teach gardening are dispatched to Flynn, Monroe, Jefferson and Sunset elementary schools for 50 minute sessions aimed at inspiring their younger counterparts to find joy in getting their hands dirty.

“I think it’s really important to teach them about the environment. As they grow older, they will be the ones making the impact,” said Maya Cardona, a passionate environmentalist herself who has aspirations of becoming a school teacher. “Our generation sees less and less nature — it’s getting destroyed with climate change. So I want to teach them that there are other ways to live.”

In the summer of 2003, the school district launched a summer internship program in which high school students work with younger students in a variety of areas — including providing math support in middle school classrooms and special education support to hundreds of students— in exchange for credit at City College of San Francisco.

Since its inception, the program has grown dramatically— from approximately 25 interns each year up to 250 students across 40 placement sites this summer. The interns support an estimated 10,000 students.

The gardening cohort is new, however, and intended to pique students’ interest in green jobs and the environment, and to teach San Francisco’s youngest how to live more sustainably.

“Simply taking care of living things does so much for children. It empowers them,” said Chris Krupa, a garden educator with the school district. “Some city kids are not exposed to this stuff, maybe they never even knew this was an option for them as far as something they could be into. We are just opening that door to nature for them.”

The hope is to offer the program throughout the year. District officials said it also addresses the need for maintenance at gardens operated by schools throughout SFUSD in the summer.

“The upkeep of SFUSD’s gardens has been mostly left to the schools and is dependent on what the budget needs of the schools are,” said Dina Yoshimura, program administrator for SFUSD’s Pre-Educator Pipelines.

Most importantly, however, Yoshimura said that the program keeps both older and younger students engaged and “away from screens” during the summer.

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