By Jan Worth-Nelson
Sometimes the news is good.
As the country emerges from a bruising winter and Flint struggles out of a three-year water crisis, some of the best neighborhood news this spring, like a little bunch of bright crocuses, is exquisitely quiet, small-scale, and promisingly local. And some of those small blooms are signs of a larger, cumulating bouquet of hopeful developments.
Consider, for example, the hoop house at Pierce Creative Arts Elementary School. Vandalized more than once over the past few years, the greenhouse project recently has been reduced to a dispiriting metal skeleton and eight wooden planters filled with crusty, hard dirt.
But this spring, a determined coalition of grownups — a former mayor whose kids have been at the school for 11 years. a neighborhood retiree whose own grandchildren are seven hundred miles away, donors, teachers, foundation officials, an Americorps/Food Corps team and a devoted community school director– have decided the project will be revived. They have organized it into two phases: one for the greenhouse itself, and another for a larger set of improvements around the school.
They envision that by Memorial Day, seedlings of chard, beets, zucchini and other vegetables will be tucked into humus. They envision a pollinator garden nearby to attract and assist bees and butterflies. They see a flourishing learning environment for children built around real-life, outdoor pleasures.
In the process, they are demonstrating how a neighborhood, a school, and a lot of charitable local and national initiatives can work together to make something good happen in Flint and plant faith in the future.
One catalyst behind the project is Doug Jones, a Flint native and retired architect who deliberately moved back to his hometown after decades of innovative practice and teaching in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Princeton, Baltimore, Greenville, South Carolina and elsewhere. He recently bought a small bungalow on Calumet, just a block from the school, which he’s been happily rehabbing into what he calls “the tuxedo house” — an elegant minimalist remaking, inside and out, in black and white. He’s also a post-graduate-trained sociologist, and has been reveling in getting to know the people and his neighborhood south of Court Street and west of Gilkey Creek.
Schools should be attractive and well-designed
In his efforts to be useful, Jones has joined forces with, among others, former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling. Walling also lives in the neighborhood and, through his two sons, both of whom have gone to Pierce, has been a parent volunteer for 11 years.
Jones enlisted several members of the American Institute of Architects local chapter to volunteer design help for what Jones hopes will be exterior improvements at Pierce. Schools should be attractive, well-designed places, he says, communicating to students through good maintenance, thoughtful layouts and even beauty that learning matters. He also has recruited a parent who’s a carpenter to repair the greenhouse structure, along with a horticulturalist from Applewood to consult on maintenance and landscape elements.
For Phase Two, he has located a retired paving contractor willing to help patch the adjoining parking lot and sidewalks. Jones says he would love to see Vernon Street surrounding the school also repaired, not just for the students but for teachers, parents and the many joggers and walkers who regularly amble through the neighborhood.
“I’ve suggested that we be directed and guided by the objective of student learning,” Jones said. “And I suggest, don’t stop at what you’ve got by just putting a bandaid over what’s there. Let’s step back and ask ourselves, what would be best for the learning environment?”
Part of a rebirth of community ed
There’s more. The significance of the greenhouse goes beyond its hopeful sprouts. It represents one physical manifestation of a larger evolution: the re-emergence and resurrection of community education in Flint.
Flint old-timers well remember community education: brainchild and progeny of Frank Manley and the C.S. Mott Foundation in the 50s and 60s, when the then-burgeoning city got national attention for how its public schools became flourishing neighborhood hubs. Nationally Manley still is considered the father of community education and the Flint model continues to be studied, revered and replicated.
However, as the city’s fortunes faded, its population dwindling and more than three dozen out of 55 schools eventually closing, community ed in Flint’s public schools died off too. But two years ago, a remarkable thing happened: the Mott Foundation brought some of its money back to community ed, revivifying the venerable Flint idea for a generation whose grandparents were the last to enjoy it. Walling recalled the upbeat momentum of the partnerships put together in 2015, the last year of his administration, a positive development quietly building as the water crisis dominated with a different story.
The Crim Fitness Foundation was selected as “lead partner” to receive Mott funds and implement the community education program. A key provision is that each of the Flint School District’s 11 remaining schools received a community schools director to coordinate and customize community ed for each neighborhood’s hopes and needs.
So another key player in the hoop house story is Kyle Peppin, hired by Crim as Pierce’s community school director. His role is to be the hub for the the school’s many-faceted emergent community education programs. Following an assessment involving parents, teachers, neighbors, staff and students, improvements to the school property surfaced as a shared value. And he says he’s delighted the hoop house has emerged as one of the program’s first manifestations.
Students learn at every step, neighborhood joins in
Community education, Peppin explained, is a strategy to bridge several disparate elements together: the neighborhood around the school, the parents, the staff and of course, the students.
“Part of that, one thing that made sense is the physical space of the school and improving that,” Peppin said. “It’s a sign of the impact we’re having.”
“And it’s functional — it’s something people see every day,” he noted. Crucially, he emphasized, Pierce’s 245 students will participate in every step: cleanup, planting, weeding, harvesting, preparing the harvest. And while USDA rules prohibit using hoop house produce in school lunches, the vegetables can be used for “educational snacks” as part of classroom lessons on gardening and nutrition and to take home. An after school group called “Sprouts Scouts” focuses on fun activities built around the garden.
Beyond the hoop house, Peppin hopes people begin to think of the school as a place to participate, to do other things — “knitting clubs, zumba, whatever.”
“People don’t typically think of schools as a community place, but we’re trying to change that,” Peppin said. “This is why Doug’s plan is so appealing — it’s a visible reminder that community ed is back. We’ll be able to make this happen.” He said funding is secure for Phase One, and he’s optimistic about possibilities for what comes next.
Volunteer contributions will be welcome along the way, Peppin said, while adding that “we want to be deliberate in how we ask for volunteers” and noting that schools require background checks on people coming onsite. But donations for flowers and other elements of the plan are welcome and should be sent to the Crim Foundation, designated for Pierce Creative Arts Elementary.
Planting time is almost here
In the meantime, Food Corps worker Rae Schmitt, also part of the Crim community education program, wants to get the seeds in and get the greenhouse up and running. The hoop house is a first step opening up to many options. And Jones, Peppin and Walling all anticipate there will be an official celebration when the project is fulfilled.
“I hope it will be clear that we want the community to be involved in the school. We want the community to know that we have a community garden here at Pierce,” Peppin said.
“And,” Walling added, “We hope it is clear that Pierce is still our neighborhood school. At 7:45 a.m. every day you will see it — students still walking to school, and three or more adults helping them safely cross the streets.”
“The whole yard is a major spot for the neighborhood kids,” Jones added, noting he can see pickup basketball games going on frequently from his own front yard. “This is what we want to build on.” In fact, program planners hope some of those kids who might have vandalized the hoop house would see that the refurbished project is for their little brothers and sisters — and maybe even get involved in helping with the project themselves.
In the meantime, the skeleton of the hoop house awaits the slight spring warming that means its new life is about to begin.
“Rae Schmitt assures me the soil is ready,” Doug Jones says. So it appears Pierce’s life is taking a green turn for its neighborhood, its teachers, its staff, its parents and most of all, the children learning every day how the world sometimes offers blooms of hope.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.