Sarah Gassen: Ochoa school's Peace Garden is an award-winning family affair

2013-03-07T00:00:00Z 2013-03-07T14:15:30Z Sarah Gassen: Ochoa school's Peace Garden is an award-winning family affairSarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Kids know that to get things done, you have to accept that you can't do it alone. And you have to ask.

For them, it's instinct. And survival.

Preschoolers in the Peace Garden at Ochoa Elementary Magnet School on a recent sunny morning were busy - tearing beautiful greens for salad, wielding bright paints with oversized brushes to create portraits of chickens, counting rows of Swiss chard.

And when they needed a hand, they looked up for help from the first adult they saw.

Family has a large role in Paula McPheeters' Parent and Child Education preschool class at Ochoa, just south of downtown. This PACE program is one of several programs across the Tucson Unified School District that offers free early-childhood education to low-income kids. It's a way to help get kids ready for kindergarten.

In McPheeters' class, parents read with their children every morning. They take turns working in the Peace Garden, weeding, planting, cleaning the chicken coop. It's a firm expectation of the families, McPheeters explained. Moms and dads come after working the night shift. They bring their younger children. They do what they need to to make it work.

So you can imagine the excitement when the PACE folks learned their Peace Garden had received a $10,000 grant from the Seeds of Change organic seed company. The garden was one of 12 recipients selected from a sea of 13,000 projects that benefit their communities through sustainable gardening.

The garden is all about sharing. The preschoolers don't simply learn the necessary lesson of letting a playmate have a turn with a toy. They learn about the connection that develops when you work together on something bigger.

The kids learn that when someone else looks up, they can be the ones to offer help. They can contribute.

The kids learn academics by counting seeds, by identifying vegetables' colors and shapes. They draw straight lines to guide their planting. They paint pictures of what they see.

They learn. Not only in the way that shows up on a standardized test as they move into grade school, but in the ways we hope all kids will learn. They learn by doing, and by giving. It's a lesson more of us could use.

Every so often they harvest their vegetables, make them into soup and hand out cups to people gathered for the sack lunches and family food bags at the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, a few blocks away.

Casa Maria serves many of the Ochoa students' families. The circle of need and giving becomes complete.

The fresh vegetables and eggs are shared with neighborhood families, too. The class loads up wagons and travels along the back streets, sharing the bounty.

When Ochoa was on the list for possible closure, people in the neighborhood mobilized. They felt protective of their school, and for good reason. It's an anchor, a root system.

Ochoa is not perfect. Too few of its students are passing reading, writing and math tests. These are legitimate concerns, but dismissing the other parts of the equation won't fix the problem. Abandoning the community the school has created is not the answer.

Heaven knows I wish I had the answer - and that the calculus of education were simple enough to offer one "answer." If only.

But the Peace Garden can offer a guidepost. The students, families, teachers and school staff come together around a common goal - growing and nurturing the next generation. They figure out ways to contribute, and to share in the benefit.

And then, when they're in need, they know that when they look up, someone will be there to help.

The circle continues.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Her column is published on Thursdays. Email her at sgassen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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