ECMS students get a green thumb

Jennie McKeon

When seventh grade Language Arts teacher at Emerald Coast Middle School, Connie Morreale, looked at the empty courtyard outside her classroom window she saw an opportunity.

"Just looking around outside I saw we have a lot of open space," Morreale said. "I thought we could use that space and capitalize on the kids who like hands-on learning."

With that thought, Morreale and the ECMS faculty began making garden dreams come true. Last October, the school received an $800 grant from the Walton Education Foundation to begin the project. The rest of the community pitched in as well. The Walton County School District donated soil and helped execute phase one of the garden, and volunteers from area churches helped place 30 indigenous plants to the area. South Walton master gardeners and horticulturists helped decide on what to plant based on what would attract butterflies to promote cross pollination.

"I've learned a great deal," said ECMS Assistant Principal Meredith Spence. "It's not only been educational for the students, but for me as well."

The garden is just a work in progress and will continue to grow and expand through the years. The middle school hopes to add walking paths and reading benches in the future.

"This is several years in the making, but we're proud to say we have one section done," Spence said. "It's very rewarding."

The section may be done, but still has plenty of room for new plants. The school will be having an herb drive starting February 25 for students to plant and use in the culinary arts class — an elective course also taught by Morreale.

"I'd love to see some basil, mint and cilantro plants," Morreale said. "The kids really like to make their own salsa."

"They do make the best salsa," Spence added. "We all eat it."

From a scholarly perspective, kids can learn more from getting their hands dirty than trying to grow seeds in a Styrofoam cup. The garden is often referred to as an "outdoor classroom."

"Students will learn a lot about plant and earth science with the real-world application," Spence said. "I'd love to see them design irrigation systems to water the plants."

 The interactive approach to learning allows students to see first-hand what they're learning about in science class.

"They get to see things actually grow and prosper and know that they've achieved something," Morreale said. "They can see the fruits of their labor and know that there is a reward at the end."

And even when class isn't in session, there will still be a beautiful garden for the staff, faculty and students to appreciate.

"I'd love for the garden to become a place to study," Spence said. "Where you can sit and read a book among the butterflies."