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North Hills

Wexford Elementary earns Green Ribbon Award

| Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, 8:21 p.m.

Wexford Elementary School teachers Tara Hillegas and Joanna Firman walked through the school’s vegetable garden and pointed out a cucumber ready to be picked to students Leah Timmons, 8, and Nyejah Ressler and Tyler Coyne, both 7.

“They kind of hide in here,” said Hillegas, a special education teacher, as the students began turning over leaves to find the treasures underneath.

The courtyard garden at Wexford Elementary is in all its late summer glory, with bushels of ripe tomatoes and peppers waiting to be picked while vines full of cucumbers and different squash spread across the ground and even climb up the shrubs. The students will donate what they collect to local food banks and organizations to help feed those in need.

It’s just one of the projects that helped earn the school a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Award in May, and on Sept. 19, a contingent of teachers, administrators and staff will travel to Washington, D.C., to accept the award and interact with members of other schools.

“It’s across the United States, and what’s exciting is they’re teaching us how to sustain what we’re already doing,” principal Kelly Gustafson said. “It’s pretty exciting to be able to share our story and then bring other ideas back to our own community.”

A total of 58 schools, 46 of them pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and 40 of them public schools, were honored nationwide. Mt. Lebanon High School was the only other Pennsylvania school given the award.

In addition to the energy and water conservation programs practiced district-wide, Wexford was also recognized for its cafeteria recycling program, initiated by a second-grade student, that has resulted in a significant increase in recycling.

For the garden, not only do the students help plant and maintain the vegetables and beds, but the gardens are incorporated into STEAM and health curricula.

Once they started donating what they grew to organizations, including Central Baptist Church, an unintended lesson developed from the project.

“We started graphing how much we’ve given to food banks and local nonprofits who are trying to feed the hungry and we started realizing we’re harvesting 11 pounds of tomatoes and 10 gallons of salad in a week,” said Firman, who teaches first grade. “The kids started realizing they were having a real impact on the community, so it wasn’t just fun for them, they were also helping out.”

Coyne was one of the students who helped move dirt to fill the raised beds and collected leaves for composting.

“I like gardening,” he said.

Ressler volunteered to come in over the summer and helped with picking the vegetables.

“I enjoy picking,” he said. “I did that mostly. I picked green beans, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and some lettuce.”

Timmons said her favorite part of growing vegetables was eating them, but she also liked knowing what they’re growing at schools is being donated to the food bank and helping others.

“In Pittsburgh, there are a lot of poor people,” she said.

Added Firman, “They’re getting an awareness that not everybody is as fortunate as we are.”

The school started with just two raised beds two years ago, built by custodian Jerry Glevicky, then added two more. They hope to add even more for next planting season.

Already this year, they’ve donated 51 pounds of tomatoes, 12 pounds of peppers, 12 pounds of beans, 39 pounds of squash and 76 gallons of lettuce.

“Our students are engaged in a way of life,” Gustafson said. “This isn’t a one-and-done where we’ll do this this year and move on. They’ll take this, take it home to their families and share it with their families and friends outside of the community. That’s the key. That’s education at its finest.”

Karen Price is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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