With garden beds, students at St. John Francis Regis Catholic School learn teamwork, community service

As temperatures plummeted and the Christmas holidays approached, students at a southeast Kansas City parochial turned their attention to...

...gardening, of course.

The thermometer reading was barely above freezing last week, but the middle school students at St. John Francis Regis Catholic School didn’t mind being outdoors. The sun was shining, and the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders had a break from the classroom routine.

And they knew they were making a difference in their community.

Assisted by a couple of people from Kansas City Community Gardens, the students built six raised beds, which will become a community garden for the school and neighborhood.

They hammered the wooden sides of the beds together, shoveled topsoil into wheelbarrows, emptied the soil into the beds and raked the dirt until it was even.

“It’s hard work, and it’s all about getting your sleeves dirty,” said 11-year-old Abby Salanski. “Plus, it really shows teamwork.”

Jennifer Scanlon-Smith, principal of the school at 8941 James A. Reed Road, said the gardens will double as an outdoor classroom and an asset to the surrounding neighborhood.

Preschoolers through eighth-graders will work to maintain the gardens, of course, but some science, writing and art projects also will revolve around the gardens.

The produce grown by the students will be used at the school, stocked at the St. Regis food pantry and distributed to people in the community.

“The students kind of stand out as a bright light in this neighborhood,” Scanlon-Smith said. “But it’s not just about them. It’s part of our job as educators to teach them about the world outside the four walls at St. Regis.”

The project is also helping the school get a head start on its accreditation goals.

When the school went through the accreditation process last month, educators were asked to create a five-year plan that enhances Catholicity, academic excellence and the institution.

The school garden falls under the institutional improvements.

“So, we feel that we have started to accomplish this goal,” Scanlon-Smith said.

Come March, members of Kansas City Community Gardens will return and help the students plant the garden.

The non-profit organization provides educational assistance to low-income individuals, children and community groups in the Kansas City area so they can grow their own food from garden plots in backyards, vacant lots, schoolyards and at community sites.

The Schoolyard Gardens program helps students develop gardening skills, learn about healthy eating habits, understand plant science and increase environmental awareness, according to the group’s website.

MaryAnna Henggeler, Schoolyard Gardens coordinator with Kansas City Community Gardens, said the organization works with nearly 150 schools around the metropolitan area.

Meghan O’Dowd, middle school science teacher at St. John Francis Regis, came up with the idea for the gardens by talking to her students. A parent of one student told her about Kansas City Community Gardens, and within a couple of weeks, the school and organization had a plan.

O’Dowd said the students are already talking about what they’ll plant in the spring. They’ll decide through voting.

But as the beds were being built last week, they were looking forward to what came after the hard work: the hot chocolate they were promised for a job well done.