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Inner-city Ohio school's literally taking gardens to new heights

CINCINNATI, Ohio — Take a century-old school building near downtown Cincinnati; after some restoration, discard the playground on its rooftop and in its place, put in 35 raised garden beds. Now allow the 400-plus students to plan, plant, tend and harvest the fruits and vegetables from that garden.

While this all may seem daunting, the garden and raised beds on the 8,500 square-foot roof  of Rothenberg Preparatory Academy came to life thanks to a mammoth effort from faculty, students and the community. The school, for grades Pre-K-6, is located at the corner of Main Street and East Clifton Avenue on the city’s northwestern corner.

At the center of it all is education. “This is the first time we can see the results of our efforts,” said Pope Coleman, who spearheaded the project. “Each teacher has a block of ground that’s theirs. And each child has his own plot of ground. They learn cause and effect in a chaotic neighborhood, where that’s hard to come by.”

The project began in 2008 when the Cincinnati school district was in the midst of a districtwide construction plan to replace and renovate all its schools. Plans were to raze and rebuild the Rothenberg school, but the community rallied to save the beloved 100-year-old structure and residents nearby persuaded the district to renovate rather than demolish.

Coleman, an urban activist and board member of the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) Foundation, came up with the idea. Coleman helped create the partnership to make the project work – included is a Garden Guild whose board members are supporters of the project. Members include community residents, parents, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) administrators, rooftop garden experts, educators and gardeners.

CPS renovated the historic building and reopened it to students during the 2013-14 academic year. Rothenberg Preparatory Academy Principal Amber Simpson explained the garden allows students to plant the seeds of knowledge as they incorporate science, reading, creative writing, social studies and math into their work.

“The students love being in our outdoor classrooms,” she said. “They love it for two reasons. First, they love being outside, and second, they’re learning. It’s beautiful being in the rooftop garden. It’s amazing that there’s something so beautiful in this urban setting and we’ve been able to create it on the rooftop.”

The rooftop garden is enjoyed by parents as well as the children. “There are a few components that affect the parents in another way,” said Barbara Bell, community resource coordinator at the school.

“The parents are aware that there is a partnership in the school and the students are attending this like a special, but in addition the parents have the opportunity to volunteer with the garden and be a part of that class. We also partner with the Beech Acres Partnering Center, and they bring a group of volunteers to the garden.”

Beech Acres is an organization with a mission of inspiring and equipping parents, families and communities to raise capable, caring and contributing children.

“Along with Beech Acres, we run a program with the parents and the garden,” said Bryna Bass, Rothenberg Rooftop Garden education coordinator. “They each have their own garden bed that they can tend to, and they can decide what to plant and grow and when to harvest. There is also cooking class with the parents, as well as field trips.

“All grade levels have the opportunity to participate in our garden program, including preschoolers. During nice weather they can do the hands-on work needed for the garden as well as the classroom work that includes the math, science and even social studies, as they learn what climate is necessary to grow certain vegetables as it relates to crop curricular studies.

“When the weather is not so nice, the kids continue the garden program in our science lab, using our indoor power garden and there they grow vegetation in the winter months,” Bass added.

The school is also home to the school’s junior horticulture group that recently provided a floral display for the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Art and Blooms program. The students additionally created planters that were exhibited in the Cincinnati Horticultural Society’s Amateur Flower Show. They received numerous ribbons for their efforts.

“We also hold summer school, so the garden is in use 11 months out of the year,” said Sara Storjohann, Rothenberg Rooftop Garden LLC president. “This summer we have an enrichment program for our older students to learn job skills by using the garden, and they earn a stipend for their effort.”

These educators are quick to point out the garden itself is more than just growing food and flora – it’s an innovative model where grade-by-grade academic standards are met through garden-based lessons.