- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

EL PASO, Texas (AP) - Nine weeks ago, Charles Garcia was a disengaged student, keeping to himself in the back of the classroom. But since breaking ground on his latest school project, the El Paso Academy West senior can be found wielding a sledgehammer or behind the wheel of a bulldozer in the school’s new garden, where he often works with classmates until long after the sun sets.

“What it’s going to be is a garden labyrinth that’ll provide food for the homeless,” he said recently as he tinkered with an electric chainsaw. “We’re recycling everything, using local compost and supporting local businesses.”

The maze is the initial phase of a complex two-year environmental project that will transform the vacant lot behind the 190-student charter school into an elaborate 1.25-acre community garden and outdoor classroom, complete with garden beds, a chicken coop, a human sundial, a compost area and a keyhole garden.

El Paso Academy special projects coordinator Travis Duckworth is the scientist-turned-educator behind the schoolwide project.

“You can tell a student what X and Y coordinates mean, or you can show them,” he said. “We have them going out and really applying these ideas in a real-world setting. You get to see kids start to see the big picture.”

Students and community members recently gathered on campus to help complete the 4-foot spiral trenches that will soon become a maze of native trees.

“I never thought I’d get to do something like this at a small charter school,” Garcia told the El Paso Times (https://bit.ly/1cxeFqp ). “This is the best school I’ve been to.”

Duckworth said the school’s 12 teachers have incorporated the project into daily curriculum. Art, business, physical education, history, math and science lessons have all been folded into planning efforts, he said.

English classes, for example, studied propaganda as they explored ways to market the project to the community. In the future, business students might learn economic principles as they sell produce grown on campus at local farmers markets.

“It takes a whole village to educate a child,” campus administrator Beatriz Zavala said. “This is a perfect example. Who’s reaping the benefits of this? Our students. This is the type of thing we want to see in every school.”

Lauren Baldwin, a sustainability program specialist for the city of El Paso, said the project’s innovative land-management methods - including water harvesting and composting - are at the forefront of the area’s sustainability movement.

“A lot of what (Duckworth) is doing, we’ve never seen in El Paso before,” Baldwin said. “He’s not only connecting curriculum to real-life projects, but he’s also making learning interesting and really going outside the box.”

During the recent work day, Armin Cano stood shoulder-deep in a muddy trench, shovel in hand. After explaining to a group of volunteers the process of making and using water levels, the 18-year-old high school senior delegated duties and started to dig.

“This is a great way, not just for this school but for the community, to come together,” he said, gazing at the snaking furrows that will soon resemble a labyrinth.

Local businesses have donated snacks, organic composting material, equipment and man-hours.

“We’re just very excited to be working with the El Paso Academy,” said Carlos Huerta of area composting business New Green Organics. “This concept is amazing. It’s instilling a new culture in our youth - a culture of sustainability. In the future, they’ll have these concepts to help preserve our ecosystem.”

Huerta expects to donate about 1,000 cubic yards of organic composting material to the school.

Members of Cano’s work crew said they were impressed with the scale of the project.

“When we drove up, I thought it was going to be a small community garden, but this is huge,” said Rebeca Ruiz, a Home Depot volunteer. “This is awesome. We’re going to be part of something that’ll be here forever and the kids will, too.”

El Paso Academy physical education teacher Eliu Davis has helped plan the project since its inception. He said he’s excited to see students like Cano take ownership of the project.

In the future, students will be responsible for daily upkeep of the project, and there are plans for students to lead community gardening classes, Davis said.

“Sometimes we just stand out there for like 30 minutes and just admire it,” Davis said. “It’s so nice to see it actually happening.”

Duckworth said that after this project is complete, El Paso Academy’s East campus will begin a similar environmental initiative using green urban planning practices. In the next phase of the West campus project, students will learn how to recycle glass and concrete to make decorative walls and pathways.

Garcia said he looks forward to seeing everything come together. Although he will graduate this year, he said he hopes to continue his involvement.

“In five years, what you see will be a forest,” he said. “I will definitely come back and see it because I helped start it.”


Information from: El Paso Times, https://www.elpasotimes.com

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