Editorials

KCK schools bulldozed this middle school science teacher’s learning garden. But why?

Rosedale Middle School learning garden before it was destroyed

Video shows the Rosedale Middle School learning garden before it was destroyed by work crews doing renovations on the school over the summer break.
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Video shows the Rosedale Middle School learning garden before it was destroyed by work crews doing renovations on the school over the summer break.

Chris Clemmons strikes you as the teacher every parent would want for a child. Passionate. Engrossing. Delightfully unorthodox. But the science instructor feels as sheared and lifeless as his garden classroom today.

And it’s a sad sight to behold.

When he arrived July 24 to till the ground for his seventh year of hands-on teaching at Rosedale Middle School in Kansas City, Kansas, he discovered the garden he and his students had long tended in the school’s courtyard had been bulldozed in the midst of a construction and renovation project. Now, the former plot of native vegetation is brown and furrowed.

As the custodian of free-flowing columbine, coreopsis and goldenrod, which can be mistaken for weeds much of the year — and as one with very little clout — Clemmons more than once has had to avert or recover from a trimming. The plants have been alternately mowed or pulled out over the years. But this was a razing, without warning and without regard for the inestimable impact of encouraging our young to become both students and stewards of their environment.

The teacher had students plant, observe and research native grasses in the garden, and adopt and care for other plants and trees elsewhere on campus.

The incident has elicited intense emotion in Clemmons, who fights back tears reflecting on the heart and untold hours he’s invested into this real-life learning. And it’s erupted in immense outrage on social media.

“I think people recognize,” Clemmons says of the support he’s getting, “that what’s going on in the classroom across America is not right. People are tired of watching kids go into the classrooms and their love of learning die. I think people realize that we are losing a lot of the things that make us human. For test scores.”

Clemmons’ struggle to bring science to life and life to science has not gone unnoticed by students and parents.

“They’ve watched this,” he says. “They’ve watched year after year, me fighting and trying to rebuild after their work is disrespected.” The unintended lesson? “It doesn’t matter what you do. The system will chew you up and spit you back out. That’s what they’re seeing.”

A school district spokeswoman told The Star, “There were plans to move this garden as a result of the construction.” That seems more than a little disingenuous since the garden never stood in the way of the construction.

Nonetheless, if that was the plan all along, why not make a concerted effort to inform and coordinate with the science teacher whose work was being uprooted? Besides, if all the plants were merely moved, that’s news to Clemmons, who was relegated to investigating who’d done this deed.

It seems clear enough now it was his own school district.

As bad as Clemmons feels, as the caretaker who was left out of the care taking, he doesn’t want to teach another painful lesson to his students: that of giving up.

There’s a place for a manicured lawn, which is happily part of the spruced-up scenery at Rosedale Middle School. But the value of a living classroom should not be underestimated. These are samples of the native plants that clean our air and filter our water, Clemmons figures, and they provide an introduction to the flying, buzzing creatures that make it all go.

“That’s what real education is. It’s not being able to repeat things on a test. It’s being able to understand your place in the world and your ecosystem — and understanding how you can exist within it, not in spite of it,” Clemmons argues. “You can’t advocate for things that you don’t know anything about. You can’t protect things if you don’t know they’re there.”

While he appreciates and, frankly, needs the encouragement of the community, he’d be far better off with the support of school and district decision-makers who hold his brand of teaching and the urgency of environmental science in much higher esteem. Rosedale will look terrific when all is said and done, but isn’t a teacher’s work sort of central to the mission inside?

Having dutifully checked on his outdoor classroom during summer and finding it ravaged, this is not the way a passionate young teacher deserved to start the academic year next week. Great teachers, like the learning garden, must be nurtured. Instead this teacher, like the school garden that became his classroom, feels plowed over.

Can it be that, even in eco-conscious 2019, school administrators still don’t grasp the gravity of environmental learning? Or is it that, as Chris Clemmons is tempted to believe, “the universe is trying to tell me something”?

Maybe — though here’s hoping the Rosedale Middle School environment ends up saying something entirely different.

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