Ground Education currently has gardening programs in 16 elementary schools. The organization hopes to expand to every school that serves elementary schoolers in the district. Photo courtesy of Ground Education

Holland Brown and Karen Taylor are on a mission to build a garden in every elementary school in Long Beach.

It’s a substantial goal—there are 47 Long Beach Unified School District elementary schools, plus six K-8 institutions—but Brown and Taylor and their nonprofit, Ground Education, are well on their way, thanks to a new partnership with LBUSD that will provide $315,000 through a new state program. The district’s Board of Education approved the agreement for the funding last month.

The organization currently serves about 10,000 students with monthly gardening programs. But through this funding that will extend into next summer and fall, Brown and Taylor plan to reach even more students, by building more gardens, improving garden maintenance, adding additional nature paths in schools and creating supplementary programming before school, after school, and during the summers—all efforts to create more opportunities to access nature for Long Beach students.

“Everything the kids are learning in a classroom, to bring it outside, it’s really solidified with the hands-on experience of being in a nature space,” Taylor said. “Kids will realize these nature spaces are available for them no matter who they are, that it’s something that can support them, not only in learning, but in life.”

Not only do gardening programs complement in-class learning, but the programs have become a powerful tool in empowering students and developing confidence, Brown said.

“Kids feel supported in the garden. They feel agency and powerful because they are active, not just as participants, but they maintain and they nurture those spaces,” Brown said.

Each year, students return to the garden with more confidence and can witness the growth of the garden along with their personal development, emotionally and academically, Taylor said.

“Nature can validate who you are, hear you and see you and help set you up to care for nature going forward,” Taylor said.

Just like its gardens, Ground Education has continued to blossom since officially becoming a nonprofit nearly six years ago.

In the last year alone, the organization has expanded from having gardens in 11 elementary schools to 16—mostly concentrated in North, Central and West Long Beach, where there is less access to green spaces.

The nonprofit’s staff has also grown from 15 last year to 21 including co-founders Brown and Taylor, plus a garden infrastructure team and administrative support.

The nonprofit also recently began a partnership with LBUSD’s nutrition services due to a “Farm to School” grant, bringing fresh produce to each school and supplementing Ground Education’s gardening lessons with additional produce, creating an opportunity to highlight students to local farmers, Taylor said.

LBUSD has “been an unreal collaborator,” Taylor said. “It got lifted off last year, but it’s really in full swing this year.”

Ground Education was initially founded in 2008 and became an official nonprofit in 2017. Photo courtesy of Ground Education.

Building connections to nature and food sources are at the core of the organization’s programming.

In Ground Education’s school gardens, older elementary school students are currently planting wheat, greens and winter vegetables such as carrots and rainbow chard. First graders are planting peas, while kindergarteners are “getting their hands on slushy, rotten, old pumpkins after Halloween,” Taylor said.

Along with its current services, Ground Education plans to expand to offer more wraparound services that complement the current programming, Brown said.

This past summer, gardening programs were offered in 13 schools, a number Brown and Taylor hope to grow to 18 during the summer of 2023.

In October, Ground Education taught 100 classes, a record for the organization, and Brown and Taylor hope to get six more gardens built over the next year with this new LBUSD funding, with the eventual goal of building a garden each month.

“It’s a grand step towards making these natural spaces more integrated into the fabric of these schools, and stretching that into the school community,” Taylor said.

Ground Education’s gardens are already becoming community spaces, with some schools introducing family nights and wellness programming in their outdoor spaces, Brown said.

With childhood moving largely indoors, creating meaningful time outside during the school day is extremely impactful for students, Brown said.

“Part of my perspective has always been, nature belongs to all of us,” Brown said. ”If you don’t have much time spent, if you don’t make those memories and connections and have those ‘aha’ moments about how the natural world works, it’s hard to be part of the generation that’s going to care for our natural resources. Everybody deserves to have those moments of  discovery and wonder.”

Brown and Taylor are eager to accelerate the pace of Ground Education’s growth through this new funding, and are in the planning stages to determine the logistics of utilizing the funding.

“It’s almost too good to be true, it’s like that wish where you have to pinch yourself and say, ‘is this really happening?” Brown said.

“You start to realize that this is a part of the school day where they feel pretty great, regardless of anything else that’s been happening for them that day, so I really hope that plants some really positive seeds,” Brown said. “Seeing their sense of confidence grow and grow and their sense of agency grow . . .  I just hope that that continues to pay dividends for them in all aspects of their lives going forward.”