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FirstLine Schools
Saniyah Barthelemy, 11, digs a trench as her class works on building a rain garden to fix a drainage problem at Arthur Ashe Charter School. Barthelemey will enter sixth grade this fall at Langston Hughes Academy, another FirstLine school. Credit: Marta Jewson

Arthur Ashe Charter School is out for the summer, but several kids were out in the blazing sun late last month, digging away — because they’ve got a problem to solve.

When it rains, water pools on the sidewalk and seeps into the gym.

“So we’re trying to make a river so that it goes straight to the drain,” said Saniyah Barthelemy, 11 years old, pointing to a nearby stormwater catch basin.

She’s one of several students participating in a summer water-management class at Ashe, one of five charter schools run by FirstLine Schools. Besides digging the drainage ditch, they’re designing and building a rain and vegetable garden.

It’s all part of Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, FirstLine’s program that teaches real-world problem solving. The water-management class is an example of the many hands-on learning experiences the program provides to kids at FirstLine Schools.

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The program doesn’t just teach gardening. One room at Ashe looks like a science lab, with long shiny steel tables. It’s the teaching kitchen.

“The mission is to change the way kids eat, live and learn in New Orleans.”

As the students learn about food and where it comes from, they’re also learning science, math, history, social studies and leadership skills, said Dominique Harris, communications director for FirstLine.

“The mission is to change the way kids eat, live and learn in New Orleans,” she said.

Cultivating hands-on skills at every grade level

Each of the charter network’s campuses has a garden. Samuel J. Green Charter School’s garden, located in the Freret neighborhood, is wedged into its city-block campus next to a playground and small soccer field. Arthur Ashe Charter School in Gentilly has a small garden in front and an expansive park behind the school.

Saniyah is headed to sixth grade at Langston Hughes Academy, an elementary school. There’s a garden at its campus near the Fair Grounds Race Course.

“This school year, I’m going to be a garden intern,” she said. “I’ll help them plant more things and help the little kids develop as gardeners.”

She’ll work with kids as young as 5 years old.

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Kitchen and gardening classes are built into FirstLine’s curriculum from kindergarten through fifth grade, along with PE and art, said Stefin Pasternak, the Green campus’ lead “chef” educator.

In kindergarten, students learn “food ABCs,” are exposed to new foods and discuss hygiene and manners, Pasternak said.

In first and second grades they learn about food groups and nutrition, such as how the color of a fruit or vegetable signals what nutrients are in it.

Third-grade students learn about different cuisines around the world and track how they migrate along with people from one country to another. Fourth-grade students learn how to make local foods from scratch.

For students in grades four through eight, the class is geared toward honing their culinary skills, Pasternak said.

Schools and the charter network pay for about 40 percent of the cost of the Edible Schoolyard program; the rest is covered by grants and other contributions.

Schools host events for their communities, allowing people to plant and harvest crops. Sometimes students pick food and take it home or allow neighbors to do so.

“We want our schools to be real community schools,” Harris said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, and The Lens, an investigative online newsroom covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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