by Dana Greenblatt, AmeriCoprs VISTA
What’s more exciting for students than taking a break from the classroom? Getting out of their desks and putting their hands straight into the dirt! This became a reality for students who attend Sweeney Elementary’ s after-school program on a sunny September afternoon. When I arrived at the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens, students and after-school teachers were dispersed into several groups throughout the garden, deeply engaged in the activities at hand. Near the hornos, traditional mud ovens, students used their knowledge of fractions to divide tortilla dough among themselves and pressed it evenly before the tortillas were popped into the oven. At this station, students also had the chance to try their hand at grinding dried corn into meal using stoneware; and imagine what life would have been like when this arduous process was a daily task.
Following the path to the vegetable garden, I found students harvesting native crops such as in the dirt, they would run over to me to present their findings with excitement. Many students were invited to taste their harvested produce; the new flavor profiles elicited mixed reactions. The majority of the harvest would be donated to a local food bank. Which led the Director of education, Mollie Parsons, to hold an impromptu discussion about why providing food for struggling families in our community is important. In addition to harvesting and cooking, there were two other activity stations for students to engage in. Above the vegetable garden one group was creating chalk art along the cement wall while another cluster was quietly drawing or journaling about their observations throughout the botanical wonderland.
While their visit to the Botanical Gardens was a unique experience for the students, hands on learning from local organizations has become a constant in their week. The beginning of the 2018 – 2019 school year marked the start of a pilot program born out of a partnership between the Santa Fe Community Educators Network (CEN) and Sweeney Elementary School’s after-school program. This partnership was formed with the goal of providing more high quality out of school time education for all youth in Santa Fe, especially those who may not have access to the more expensive extracurricular options offered in the city. Each Friday, CEN affiliated organizations provide several hours of engaging, project-based programming for all students attending the after-school program. Organizations signup for two consecutive weeks, with the idea that one week will include on site activities and the other a field trip to the organization’s site. Additionally, as CEN prepares for their third summer of partnering with the City of Santa Fe to implement programming at the Youth Summer Program, it is their hope that there will be some consistency among students between the two programs. The Community Educators Network aims to create a more comprehensive web of support for under-served students in Santa Fe through ongoing programming both during the summer and the school year. After several successful Friday afternoons this fall, CEN and Sweeney Elementary are excited to continue the program throughout the rest of the school and ideally expand in years to come.