Grant allows garden project to be completed

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An aerial view shows the school garden installed at Madison Elementary School through the Earth Rebirth school garden network project. By the end of August, Earth Rebirth plans to have gardens installed at all 27 Norman Public School campuses.

Earth Rebirth plans to install gardens at three Norman Public Schools campuses thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant it recently received.

Cleveland Elementary School and Alcott and Whittier middle schools will have their own gardens to start the school year, completing Earth Rebirth's school garden network in Norman, said Andrew Sartain, the group's president. The other 24 Norman schools, including both high schools, have garden spaces on campus.

The $55,855 USDA grant -- and another $25,000 from the Schwartz Family Foundation -- will pay for the installation of the three gardens and enable Earth Rebirth to hire a full-time garden program director. Sartain said since the program was launched in 2012, Earth Rebirth employees and volunteers have learned a lot about what it takes to maintain school gardens.

"We learned a lot on how to manage those things and, one-by-one, worked to get gardens in as many schools as we can," Sartain said.

The director will help educators and volunteers maintain the school gardens throughout the year. An online training program called Earth Rebirth Academy was set up earlier this year, according to a news release, which will help train teachers on garden projects for the classroom.

The grant will also enable Earth Rebirth to launch a smartphone app that will engage the community in in managing the school gardens.

Gardens at Alcott, Whittier and Cleveland will be unique to each school, just as the other gardens are, Sartain said.

"All of them have their own processes," he said. "That's one of the things we learned. It has to fit the school and fit the people who want to be involved."

The hope is to maintain each garden so it becomes valuable to the school and community as a whole. Sartain said he wants to see each either serve the school cafeteria or boost school revenue through the sales of each harvest.

"Our primary goal was not to just give them a garden, but also show the economic side of gardens," he said. "The goal is to make the school gardens too valuable to fail."

The three new gardens will have to go up quickly, Sartain said. A film crew will be using footage of the installations and the completion of the school garden network for a mini-documentary to be shown at Earth Rebirth's Wild and Scenic Film Festival on Nov. 2 in the Sooner Theatre.

"So ideally we have these gardens built by the end of August," Sartain said. "Everything is happening really fast."

Sartain said residents who want to help with the school garden network project can do so by becoming a member of the Earth Rebirth Academy, the proceeds of which go toward garden maintenance. Additionally, people can volunteer to be a garden checker, someone who helps maintain a garden during the school year and especially in the summer vacation months.

"If you live nearby a school, you can go by and help water it, weed it and even harvest it to make sure the food goes to those who need it," Sartain said.

Both of those things can be done at Earthrebirthnow.org or Earthrebirthacademy.com.