Approach the modern-looking school. Note the three wind turbines at the entrance to the school. Pause at the swing set and playground. Standard stuff you find at any school. Then move on to the outdoor classroom. A sloped roof covers an ample space where benches ring around a stage. Picture students and teachers on the stage holding forth on various subjects.
Turn left — east — toward the garden, noting that adjacent to you, to the north, sits a 2,200-gallon cistern, full of rainwater, fed by the sloped roof of the outdoor classroom. Suddenly encounter a pen of seven goats. They come to you, push their soft noses at you, entreat you to pet them. Go ahead: Pet them. No, not their heads, pet their necks. Move on to the garden. Eye the chili peppers, the green beans, the collards, smell the flowers, the mint. Smile at the chicken coop. Look up: two more wind turbines.
Turn right — south — and head toward the end of the fitness course and grassy area to eventually come to the beehives. Watch these pollinators buzz around. Fear nothing. Turn back toward the school to witness the goats now running around the grass, gamboling like happy creatures, school children tagging after them, laughing, like in a children's book.
Take a deep breath. Remind yourself: This is a school. A school smack dab in the middle of a tough neighborhood. A school that farms, that incorporates environmental education into its curriculum, a school on path to be the greenest school in the state of Indiana.
RELATED: Other schools are working on solutions, too
Paramount School of Excellence is a kindergarten-through-eighth grade, tuition-free, mayoral authorized public charter school located east of downtown Indianapolis.
With its 1,000 square foot garden, its bees and chickens and goats, this school's outdoor program is surely one of the most robust in the city and beyond.
Paramount's mission, in part, states: "Helping inner-city youth gain a foothold and thrive, in spite of their neighborhood destiny, means providing the tools for our students to be architects of their own future."
I like that, especially the "architects of their own future" part, because the architects of the present — the Baby Boomer generation — have made a big nasty mess for all the children to clean up.
But the story of Paramount is not just about farming and sustainability, it's about how a school can become an integral partner in a neighborhood, as will be showcased by their upcoming TURN Festival in September (see infobox on pg. 13).
As an educator I have brought over a hundred youth here to learn about stewardship, farming and community. My main Paramount contact over the past year or so has been Director of Environmental Education Andrew Hart. Hart, before he left last month for a job with the U.S. Forest Service, tells me, "One of our primary goals is for students to understand that we can raise our own food, from chickens, vegetables, berries and other sources readily available, and learn how to integrate this knowledge into our own back yards and community gardens."
The vision for this dramatic environmental program comes from Tommy Reddicks, school co-founder and executive director. Reddicks shares the school's official mission statement with me: "Inspiring learning through an unparalleled academic approach, and transforming communities by changing lives" and adds that the mission "really speaks to an environmental approach to health and sustainability. Having a system that utilizes hands-on icons to illustrate a sustainable path forward in terms of farm, food, health, and environment, truly scaffolds education in a way that generates excitement and momentum."
Hart, like Reddicks, has seen this mission and vision played out on a daily basis: "Watching students take pride in their work, and valuing work that we do with our hands, getting young people comfortable working with soil, observing free range chickens sharing their playground and seeing the joy in faces as connections with the earth are made. Students have watered our orchard every week with buckets of water, weeded the gardens, and are caring for animals. And every day more students want to be involved."
This statement is echoed by environmental educator Jace Hasenour, who has been on staff for four years at Paramount, the last two years at the farm: "The enthusiasm for the environmental program has grown since I started," he says, adding, "For a lot of these children, this is completely new to them. They've never experienced livestock or a full garden, but being kids, they are open to anything and take to it really well."
A second environmental educator, Kaitlin Hossom, who arrived in January, relates her observations thus far. "They value a carrot so much because they planted it or they picked it. They think it's the best thing in the whole world. They get so excited to harvest food. Teaching them to be self-sufficient like that is a big deal."
Hossom emphasizes that the work in the garden enables students to find out that the food they eat requires a lot of work. "If someone hands them a plate of veggies they aren't so excited," she notes, "but because they are so involved in growing vegetables, they want to eat them. They understand where it came from and how hard it was to grow it."
(Editor's note; at press time, we learned Andrew Hart's replacement is Chris Larson, from Asheville, NC.)
I ask Tommy Reddicks how Paramount Farm activities tie into the classroom. He replies, "Classes cannot spend outdoor time during academic instruction without first having an assessable lesson tied to standards leading the experience. We have a strong curricular team that can help with lesson design and we work hard to ensure every experience in the environmental space is more than just fun and fluff."
He adds, "It's our hope that over the next 3-5 years, we are able to bundle our outdoor lessons into a grade-by-grade manual for integration between state academic standards and environmental education on our site."
They give me joy
On a recent weekday after school, I interview three middle school students who are active on the Paramount Farm, to get their thoughts about working with livestock and soil.
Raina, 13, spends mornings on the farm, tending and milking the goats from 7:15 to 8 a.m. She also participates in Paramount's summer program, STEAM (Success Through Education, Agriculture and Mentoring), and the afterschool Green Team club.
I ask her why she spends so much time on the farm, and she answers, "I like interacting with the animals best, because they are friendly and cute and funny sometimes. They give me joy."
Kai, 12, agrees with Raina, adding that he plans to study zoology, and so interacting with the creatures on the farm helps him on his path. "This school is a rare chance for me to get experience in the field I want to get into when I get older."
Kai connects his work on the farm to Paramount's curriculum. "Right in the morning, we give the goats food. This is where our math skills come in. You have to measure out what you have to give them. We have to give them dolomite and a dry mix and a wet mix — so a bunch of ingredients mixed together — and then we start milking."
It occurs to me to ask these students if this early morning farm work fulfills a class commitment. No, I learn, they are volunteering their time.
RELATED: Poyser also has a story on the new hemp farm at Purdue
Twelve year-old Joe, like Raina, is a member of STEAM, and he also works with the goats in the morning. Jace interjects, smiling, that "Joe is here every morning, regardless of whether it's his day to show up or not."
Joe tells me, "All the goats mean something to me." For example, a goat named Nola "is helping me with my fitness test when we run the mile and during cross country ... She helps me run the track almost every day."
Joe goes on to describe the individual personalities of the goats: "Aglaia, she is the silly one; Sunny is the alpha, Nola and Stella are the twins, basically side by side. Luna and Leroy are the playful ones and Willy is the one that just chills."
It's clear that this daily immersion with animal care builds empathy in these young people regarding stewardship. Jace and Kaitlin talk about how Joe has advocated saving a spider as well as a nest of mice discovered in the school shed.
Kai is on the student team taking care of the bees. He describes how to capture a swarm: "Lots of steps. Suit up; you don't want to be stung. It's a bee jumpsuit. Tools: brushes, sugar water (it dampens their wings), pliers (to cut down the branch they're on, if necessary). We spray the bees and get the queen bee into the hive box. Wherever the queen goes, the whole swarm goes. That's how you catch the swarm."
He adds, "Bees are a really important species. We need bees to fertilize plants to make more plants and vegetables."
And when it comes to insects in general?
Raina speaks up: "Technically, we need them to survive. If they don't survive, we're dead."
In our conversation, Raina brings up another subject, one that surprises me. When I ask her what she gets out of all this time spent on the farm, she replies, "In the garden you have to weed out the weeds that are bad. In the classroom you have to do that with people too because you can't cause drama with other people. Weeds represent the people who try to get to you – and we're, like, the flowers. You have to pull them out, you have to ignore and you can't let them get to you — or they will bring you down."
Transforming urban neighborhoods
An outdoor environmental program is one thing, connecting that program to an entire community is quite another.
Paramount has succeeded at both. First off, let's consider a few facts about the neighborhood the school inhabits. Paramount's neighborhood is one of the five highest crime areas in Indianapolis. A 2011 report cites that the Indianapolis near Eastside neighborhood's juvenile crime charges per 1,000 youth ages 6-18 is consistently the highest rate compared to other Marion County census tracks.
The school predominantly serves three zip codes, 46201, 46202 and 46218. According to 2010 census data, these three zip codes represent the three highest percentages of poverty per capita in the state of Indiana. The 46201 area contains population in 31.8 percent poverty, while 46202 has 32.73 percent, and 46218 has 31.87 percent.
Tommy Reddicks, when he began work on founding the school, went door to door to meet the neighbors and talk about the school's mission. "If we think that our role as an educational anchor in urban education is to simply educate the child, then we will always fall short," he says. "We are strong believers in the community school model. We recognize that revitalization and change come slowly, but cannot come at all without a dedication to the whole family, and the whole community. By integrating our efforts into our neighborhood, we build a foundation of trust, companionship and development."
Renee Lynch, president of the Brookside Neighborhood Community, can attest to that. "I actually met Tommy before they broke ground," she tells me. "I was excited about it and what they had to offer. I am not techie, per se, so I was a little nervous about the computers and the robotics, but I've seen some of those programs and they are phenomenal and I've seen the kids thrive."
She makes the observation that the urban farm is "the opposite of that" technology focus, and so the school is "nicely balanced."
The partnership with the neighborhood is evident in numerous ways, from the aforementioned Garden on the Go farmers market to the students' work at eradicating invasive species in the nearby park. Then there's the soon-to-be-finished greenhouse. Reddicks says, "This space will be for community use, but will be managed by our students and environmental staff."
Lynch says the school's responsiveness to the neighborhood is "110 percent... They come to us first with their ideas before making any big steps. They partner with us [the neighborhood] and we partner with them. They help with the clean ups and they help with festivals that we do.
"If we need something we come to them; if they need something they come to us; it's a nice partnership."
"As we become good stewards in our community," Reddicks says, "we find our community neighbors becoming better stewards of our school – and eventually better stewards of their own space. This builds excitement, helps to maintain interest in the school, generates manpower and funds for both the school and neighborhood, and the return on investment is truly a 'feel good' payback."
Lynch, who's been head of her neighborhood association for five years, says, "At the time they broke ground here, this neighborhood was pretty bad – crime, drugs and prostitution. Just in five years, we have come a long way."
Quiet and peaceful
At a recent day camp I held at Paramount, a student from the school joined our group of students. His name is Issac, and he is 12 years old. When I told him I was working on this story he demanded to be interviewed.
I know that Issac lives in the neighborhood because during the course of the camp, he left a time or two to go home and take care of family business. When we finally take time to talk, it turns out he is actually only one week into his tenure at Paramount.
I ask him about his impressions of the school and especially the farm.
"It's actually cool," he tells me. "When I first came here I did not know there were chickens and stuff until I got to my last class. I asked my teacher what the noise was and he told me it was chickens."
Issac says he plans on feeding the chickens and the goats and spending time on the farm. How often, I ask.
"Every day, actually," he says, adding, "I like everything about the farm. It's peaceful and it's quiet."
Then he runs off to spend time with the goats, joining the other students.
All seven goats are led around school grounds by the children. Other than their occasional laughter, it is exactly as Issac describes: quiet and peaceful.
Please understand this story is not an advertisement for Paramount: It's a call to action for other schools to teach kids fundamental skills like gardening, water conservation and bee keeping, and to stage these learning opportunities in the otherwise mostly forgotten classroom called nature. Let's let kids get dirty, let them learn entrepreneurship and self-reliance, and if the ferocity of weather predicted by climate scientists comes to be, then these kids will be equipped with basic survival skills, their resiliency forged in the sweet spot of stewardship and community.
I watch the students with the goats. Time slows. I could sit here all day and watch them walk these goats, smile as they bend down to scratch their necks and hug them.
I recall Raina's remark: "They give me joy."
Indeed they do.
Jim Poyser is executive director of Earth Charter Indiana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.