YOUNTVILLE — It’s the first — and last — winter garden Yountville Elementary School will ever grow, but that’s not stopping students from giving it their all.
Due to budget issues and declining enrollment district-wide, the Yountville school, along with Mt. George Elementary in Napa, is scheduled to close at the end of this school year.
On Tuesday morning, Yountville Elementary’s four third graders headed over to the campus garden to tent their winter crops and tidy up the space.
The four kids are part of a combination second and third grade class that totals 27 kids, the majority of whom are second graders.
Teacher Debbie Simpkins said because there are so few third graders, she likes to take them aside for special projects they can do as a group. Like the garden.
Normally the students plant a spring garden but because the campus will close come June, there won’t be anyone around to tend the plot or pick the harvest. A winter garden is the next best thing, said Simpkins.
“It’s sad,” she said of the closure. “But we’re making this the best school year” — for both students and staff.
“The kids are resilient. I’m resilient,” Simpkins said. “I’m going to be fine. They’re going to be fine.”
School gardens “perfectly” illustrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) concepts, but especially so in winter, explained Simpkins.
“Winter growing challenges student ideas about gardening, cultivating sincere curiosity about how plants survive.”
As they watch plants freeze and thaw without damage, students learn that most plants can adapt to cold, said the teacher. Under the protection of low tunnels, vegetables survive temperatures that would otherwise kill them, illustrating how concepts in engineering solve a real world problem.
“This is authentic learning,” said Simpkins.
As the group of four entered the garden on Tuesday, they each picked up a rake and started gathering dead leaves to place in a compost bin.
The best part about the garden is that “we’re growing things,” said Lily Aguilera, age 8. Even raking is fun, she said.
What’s her favorite winter vegetable? “Broccoli,” she said. “I like the leaves.”
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“My favorite part is how it’s always fresh, like a farm,” Olivia Oler said of the garden.
Her favorite veggie? “I’m definitely allergic to tomatoes but I like sweet tomatoes,” she said. “And I really love lettuce and kale.”
She doesn’t mind being in the garden in the winter, said Olivia, age 8. “It’s fun. My cheeks always get rosy and I feel more naturous.”
“I like pullin’ weeds and picking an apple off a tree,” said RM Mondavi, age 8. Kale is also a favorite vegetable, “because my dad can make a soup” from the leaves, he said.
RM explained that some weeds are actually edible, like pickleweed.
What does pickleweed taste like? “It’s salty,” he said.
“I love kale,” said Kalan MacKenzie, 8. “It tastes good. I grow it in my garden at home every summer.”
Sweet peas are another favorite “because they’re sweet and good for you.”
Lily also likes kale. “It’s crunchy,” she said. This third grader likes working in the garden “because we’re helping nature.”
In addition to kale, the students are growing cabbage, broccoli, onions and beets.
When asked if she likes beets, Olivia paused for a moment.
“Um, they’re earthy,” she said diplomatically. “They kinda taste like dirt but they go well in salads,” or some people like them with Ranch dressing.
Simpkins said that once the school closes in June, she’s not sure what will happen to the campus or what its future use will be. Tenured teachers will be offered jobs, said Simpkins, but those exact positions haven’t been announced yet.
The Napa Valley Unified School District will merge the Yountville school’s home territory with that of Willow Elementary School, 7 miles away in north Napa, starting in August 2020. Mt. George’s zone will be combined with the territory of the Alta Heights school 2 miles west.
In the meantime, the beets, broccoli, cabbage, onions — and kale — continue to grow at Yountville Elementary School.
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