Service-Learning partnerships: Pellissippi State to break ground for Pond Gap community garden

Pellissippi State Community College’s Service-Learning program is planting the seeds for the spread of college-sponsored community gardens on the grounds of Knox County Schools.

Pellissippi State’s first garden project, part of a larger effort in Knox County to help students and communities succeed, gets under way this fall at Pond Gap Elementary School. Pond Gap is located near the college’s Division Street Campus, off Sutherland Avenue.

“A community garden project like this is all about the natural neighborhood revitalization that can come by inviting schoolchildren, their families and community college students to work together on quality service projects,” said Annie Gray. Gray is coordinator of Pellissippi State’s Service-Learning program and an English professor.

Pond Gap Elementary is Knox County Schools’ pilot project for the Community Schools Initiative. The initiative is one component of a national movement designed to strengthen schools, families, neighborhoods and communities.

Community Schools participants integrate traditional academics with community engagement to help students learn, support students’ families and promote healthy living. One aspect of the effort is to make schools, including Pond Gap,­ into community hubs by opening them for extended hours for outside programs and events.

“The Pond Gap neighborhood is very diverse. Children of 35 different nationalities attend Pond Gap, and a large percentage of their families live at or below the poverty level,” said Gray.

“It’s a challenging area, but also an ideal one for piloting a project that unites neighborhood families, the elementary school, and the college; that cuts across cultural differences to encourage relationships and teach new skills; and that inspires higher education.”

The Pond Gap pilot is overseen by the University of Tennessee. Gray is working closely with Bob Kronick, UT’s director of the University-Assisted Community School program, and Mark Benson, UACS program coordinator, on the community garden effort.

The Service-Learning project, titled “You Are What You Eat: The Edible Schoolyard Project,” is taking advantage of an AmeriCorps VISTA grant to jump-start the venture, plan and build the garden, and staff it with a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer for its inaugural year. Initial plans are to use existing space to complete a small garden by fall, with a larger, more comprehensive spring garden planned. The project’s AmeriCorps volunteer is Matt Callo.

“Pellissippi State students will be part of the volunteer process,” said Gray. “They’ll work in the garden or with Pond Gap schoolchildren, and might take part in workshops offered to the community on topics like balcony gardening or gardening on a budget.

“There are all sorts of curricular tie-ins for Pond Gap students, who can, at minimum, receive valuable math and science lessons from participating in the life of the garden.”

According to Gray, Pellissippi State plans to use the Pond Gap experience as a model for starting gardens at other community schools and eventually to offer an urban gardening certification program to college students. The initial year of the Pellissippi State project at Pond Gap will be used not only to build the garden but also to establish processes, locate sustainable revenue sources and network with other community garden efforts. Once those processes are in place, Pellissippi State will approach another community school for a similar partnership.

Now in its third year, Pellissippi State’s Service-Learning program allows students and faculty to integrate meaningful community service and reflection with more traditional learning experiences, teaching civic responsibility and strengthening communities. The garden project also supports the community service placement of 1,000 tnAchieves scholars at Pellissippi State, all of whom must complete eight hours of volunteering in the community each semester.

For more information about the community garden at Pond Gap Elementary School, call Pellissippi State at (865) 694-6400 or email service-learning@pstcc.edu.

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