Patton students growing into a larger role in society

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Middle school’s raised beds already feeding the hungry, new greenhouse should expand efforts

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

Patton Middle School teacher Betsy Ballard addresses a big crowd — including a camera crew from NBC10 — while formally opening the new greenhouse at the school, Friday.

EAST MARLBOROUGH — It’s very likely that somewhere in Chester County that a middle school student in need has already enjoyed fresh vegetables grown this spring by students at Patton Middle School.

Already — and it’s very early in the growing season – some 150 pounds of fresh food has gone from the 16 raised gardens at Patton have gone to Chester County Food Bank, with more, likely, a lot more to come during the prime growing season from June to November. And while already having the largest raised bed garden in the county might be enough for some, this group of teachers and students has — in the words of chef Emil Lagasse — decided to kick it up a notch.

Food and Consumer Science teachers Betsy Ballard and Kim Histler and more than three dozen students, various school district and school board officials and a handful of invited guests celebrated the opening of a new greenhouse near the school’s entry that will expand growing options and extend the growing season, to help students give even more back to the community.

Someone who wanted very badly to be there Friday — but couldn’t be due to a scheduling conflict — but has seen the immediate impact of students and teachers at Patton is Phoebe-Kitson-Davis, the Program Manager for the Chester County Food Bank. Kitson-Davis said she is a big fan of the work done by Ballard and Histler — from finding grants to pay for first the gardens and now the greenhouse.

“They are amazing,” she said. “They have such generous hearts. And they’re phenomenal role models.”

But the two teachers are quick to divert credit elsewhere — to donors such as Kevin Mitchell of Bentley Systems, who helped find grant money from the company, to Rob Chandler from Buds to Blooms who is helping out with hydroponic gear for the new greenhouse, to Lowes stores, which has offered grant money for both projects, the Unionville-Chadds Ford Education Foundation and the Patton PTO, both of which donated some of the funds for both projects — the students and even each other.

Patton Middle School students tend to their gardens — gardens that have produced more thn 150 pounds of fresh food for the Chester County Food Bank.

As more than three dozen students worked on the beds, some harvesting, other watering (and forcing innocent reporters to divert from their typical diets of coffee and more coffee to eating healthy snap peas and broccoli) Ballard seemed almost a bit taken aback about how quickly things have evolved.

“This is way, way beyond our expectations,” she said looking out over her students working under the direction of her partner in crime, Histler.

It all started with a trip to Longwood Gardens, where students and teachers learned a lot about the possibilities of building raised growing beds — and then the entire project developed a momentum of it’s own.

And it went from there, with Ballard using her formidable organizing skills to get grants and support from various groups, while Histler applied her expertise in growing, the kids building the beds, then planting, and now harvesting.

Patton Middle School teacher Kim Histler (right) explains details of the gardening program to Dr. John Sanville, Unionville-Chadds Ford Director of Secondary Education and Superintendent of Schools Sharon Parker.

The new greenhouse means a longer growing season — the potential for the food bank to see fresh food throughout the year. It also means that young plants can be started earlier in the year, nurtured and then planted in the beds  — or even elsewhere in the county, meaning more fresh food for more people.

Now, Patton is home to the biggest collection of raised beds in Chester County and the benefits now come on multiple fronts.

For students, it means two things: a chance to learn a little first-hand about the heritage of agriculture that just a couple of generations ago was the heart and soul of the Unionville area — and still holds a place front and center, even as housing developments have slashed the amount of farmland in the area. Second, and maybe the most important, is helping these students see a wider world, how the things they do can make a difference to other people. And these 16 beds do make a difference for people around Chester County — often the people who need it most.

Students from Patton's Fodd and Consumer Science classes pose with teachers Kim Histler and Besty Ballard — and some of their freshly picked produce, Friday.

“This really helps the students see beyond themselves,” Kittson-Davis said. “To grow, to glean and help others.”

It means changes in the coming school year, too, as students will get the chance to make the garden a bigger part of their Food and Consumer Science class — spending up to half of the time in the garden. Ballard noted about 100 students have signed up already.

And it’s not just the FCS students that benefit. A number of special education students are benefitting, getting occupational therapy in the garden.

“It’s amazing that so many kids care about the world,” Ballard said.

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