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Clairton CASTLE program students, partners gain experience with garden project

Thursday, April 10, 2014, 12:51 a.m.

Clairton City School District CASTLE program students and partners are gaining hands-on environmental education through a garden project.

CASTLE — Clairton's After-School Teaching & Learning Experience — is for students in fifth through eighth grade and sponsored by the district and the Consortium for Public Education.

Seventh- and eighth-graders built and installed four 4-by-8-foot raised garden beds Wednesday afternoon. The fifth- and sixth-graders filled the beds with soil and compost in preparation of planting various herbs and vegetables. About 75 students participated.

They were guided by eighth-grade teacher and CASTLE executive director Greg Spotti, CASTLE environmental science instructor Paula Purnell of Sense of Place Learning, and officials from Grow Pittsburgh and Group Against Smog and Pollution.

Freshman Jeffrey McDonald, 15, said he was involved with CASTLE last year, and is interning this year in hopes of assisting younger students with activities.

“I helped build and move the garden beds, and I also helped come up with some ideas,” said McDonald. “I found it pretty fun and a little relaxing (to work on the project).”

The student said he wants to see tomatoes growing in the garden.

“I love CASTLE activities,” said eighth-grader Dalayjah Lewis, 14. “I helped plan where the garden beds (were) going to be, and helped wrap the twine around sticks where the garden beds go. We helped with the seedlings (in class). Got them in the dirt and watered them every day for two weeks.”

The garden beds were installed near the gazebo next to the parking lot of the high school entrance.

Spotti said teachers may need to have a closer watch on their students during outdoor recess or gym class so they do not damage the gardens.

Purnell said CASTLE is in the second year of a three-year environmental program. Last year, students learned about water and took samples from Peters Creek among other activities. This year, students are learning about air with GASP. Next year, students will learn about land. The garden project brings all three aspects together.

“Hopefully it will be kind of a community/school resource through the summer and into next fall,” Purnell said. “We really want to get the community involved, and the kids and their parents.”

Grow Pittsburgh director of educational programing Jake Sheltman said the garden plan includes peas, carrots, spinach, lettuce, radishes, and transplanting summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and a bunch of herbs and fruit.

“There's nothing like growing their own food,” Sheltman said. “Once they've grown and planted the seeds, taking care of them and harvesting their own vegetables, that's when they want to eat them. If we'd just get them chucked in from the supermarket, there's less interest. I find that as soon as students are involved in the process they're more likely to eat (vegetables) ... This is our first time in Clairton so we're really excited to be here. We helped support the start of (the city's) community garden.”

A harvesting celebration is being planned for May 28.

CASTLE meets Monday through Thursday after school. Spotti also runs a YMCA program at the Clairton Education Center in the summer. He said the summer program students will help maintain the garden into the next school year.

“It's amazing to see how much they take in by more hands-on rather than learning in the classroom,” Spotti said. “We have plants growing inside our classroom right now.”

GASP Athletes United for Healthy Air coordinator Sam Thomas said his group has a flag program at the district where students learn about pollution, test air quality and raise a different color flag depending on the readings.

Thomas said the garden project should help the district's air.

“We love to see the kids out here planning, and getting outside and really enjoying this beautiful day,” said Thomas. “Plants are good for the environment, and we love that.”

Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or



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