Building Community Partnerships

By Eve Pranis

"By involving the local community in donating time, ideas, resources, and funds to our school garden project, we've been able to do more than we ever could have imagined doing alone," reports middle school teacher Joan Dungey of Yellow Springs, OH. The students and teachers who wanted to launch the gardening project first invited interested community members to join them in developing short- and long-term goals for it, then to create an action plan for moving forward.

"Whenever members of this steering committee made a presentation about the project to the school board or another group, they made sure to notify local newspaper and cable stations, so we could bring the project to the community's attention," explains Joan. "It was also no coincidence that we situated the garden so passersby could enjoy it and see how outdoor classes were using it to enrich learning," she adds. Presentations to the PTO helped secure funding and attract parent volunteers who donated time, resources, and expertise to the projects. As the garden grew, says Joan, so did the level of community involvement.

Among the most successful school gardening programs are those in which educators and students have deliberately reached out to cultivate community partnerships. These kinds of connections are important for obtaining materials and funds, but can be equally rewarding in non-material ways. They often encourage exchanges among students, teachers, and a diversity of community members and help local people better understand educational goals. Here are some suggestions, shared by educators across the country, for ways to create and sustain community support for school garden programs.

Identify potential partners and supporters.

Brainstorm local organizations, businesses, and individuals that you could tap to help develop or enhance your garden project. As you make contacts, keep track of those who expressed interest and the kinds of roles they might serve. Ask yourselves the following questions:

Are there community members or groups who might serve as mentors (e.g., garden clubs) or people or businesses that provide products or services you could use (e.g., mulch or plowing)?

Is the PTO willing to earmark "seed money" to launch the project?

If your garden has a particular thematic focus, such as Native American plantings, whose expertise might be tapped (a representative from a historical society or indigenous group, for instance)?

Might residents of a nearby senior center be interested in an intergenerational gardening project?

Is there a Master Gardener program at your local Cooperative Extension office? In exchange for their horticultural training, Master Gardeners make a specific commitment to volunteer locally.

Consider setting up an advisory committee.

If your program is large-scale, think about forming a panel of garden advisors. Be sure to include students and interested teachers as well as community members who have skills and enthusiasm to share. Use group meetings to lay out project objectives, define participants' interests and roles, and keep everyone updated on progress. If necessary, form sub-committees to tackle portions of the project.

Welcome visitors.

Create opportunities for students to "show off" the garden by giving tours to other classes, parents, community members, and donors. Feature colorful, attractive signs at the garden entrances. Be sure to thank sponsors and contributors prominently.

Use the local media to your advantage.

Keep local newspaper, television, and radio people apprised of your efforts. They might be particularly interested in a ground-breaking ceremony, large donation from local businesses, open house when the garden is flourishing, harvest festival, unusual experiments or crops, or a trip to a food shelf to donate harvested crops. Invite local officials to go on student-led tours of your garden project. When possible, highlight supporters in press releases, interviews, and so on.

Be prepared when soliciting business donations.

Have your specific needs in mind before approaching businesses to donate or discount materials. Explain (or have students explain) the project and your specific needs, and make a clear case for how the donation will benefit students (their current and future customers!) "I've found that a letter of introduction from my principal explaining the school garden project opened some doors to large businesses such as K-Mart and Home Depot," reports Karen Williger from New Orleans, LA. Be sure to tell prospective supporters how you'll highlight their donation: on a garden entrance plaque, for instance. Follow up with thank-you letters, newspaper clippings, and invitations to garden events.

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