Inch by Inch at The David School

by Sister Kathy Curtis

Nestled in the steep valley between Floyd The David School Garden and High Tunnelsand Magoffin Counties is the former coal town of David, home of The David School, a high school for teenagers who have found it difficult to succeed in a traditional school setting. Founded in 1972, The David School has a long history of unique and varied service learning programs including running its own gas station in the small town. The school’s founders believed that a well-rounded curriculum should include hands on practice in real world skills. In its third year, the Inch by Inch Garden Project is one of the service learning focuses at the school.

The Inch by Inch Garden Project is a multi-faceted educational program that incorporates the garden into the school’s academic program. In addition to lessons involved in the actual growing of plants, each core academic teacher has created eight garden-related lessons in their focus, two for each quarter.

“We have quite a full binder of lessons now” then-project director Jann Knappage told me. The entire student body is impacted by the Inch By Inch project whether they get their hands dirty or not. Of course the organically grown produce is served in school lunches but the garden project also teaches business and life skills in the garden itself and in academic classes like math and science.

“I have noticed that this year the students have taken more pride in the garden” Knappage remarked, “especially since it has grown so much.”

Starting out as a sand volleyball court and four The David School high tunnelssmall raised beds, the Inch By Inch garden has taken root and grown both literally and figuratively. The first year of the project saw the addition of two 20’ by 40’ high tunnels. This year the project added a greenhouse, chicken coop, irrigation system, and outdoor classroom – almost all built by students and staff with skills learned in wood shop, beginning building, and engineering classes.

The school uses the produce grown to help with the school lunch budget, as well as for income through the production and sale of value-added products, like their hot sauces. Through a program of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Knappage and others became certified micro-processors and can now take the peppers, tomatoes, and onions grown in the school garden and turn them into delicious hot sauce which is sold at the school and at the Floyd County Farmers Market.

The decision to make hot sauce was student-led, as was the final choice of recipes for their two sauces—Falcon Inferno, named after the school mascot, and the milder Southeast Heat, named for the region of Kentucky where the school is located. In addition to hot sauce, the students also produce items from the school’s woodshop that are also for sale at the school and the farmers’ market.

TDS Hot SauceTDS hot sauce

TDS hot sauceI asked Knappage how she was able to run a school garden program over the summer – the optimal time to grow most vegetable crops, but also when most schools are deserted.

“The David School is a Grow Appalachia site and they have been very generous in providing the funds to pay for three summer student interns. And our school’s Board members raised the money for a fourth student. The students work four-hour days, Tuesday through Saturday, which includes a stint manning the farmers’ market table,” said Knappage.

I mentioned to Knappage that her summer interns for the last two years had been male and she acknowledged that the guys seemed more open the outdoor work. She pointed out, however, that in its second year of classes, the Inch By Inch project had an equal ratio of male to female students in the service learning classes.

The David School tilling“The girls really excelled in the designing and marketing for our spring plant sale. And they are more adept at the more intricate tasks like transplanting seedling and painting herb pots for the sale,” Knappage shared.

I had an opportunity to visit the seventh period service learning classes two weeks before school let out this summer to meet some of the students. While half of the class of eight had never had a home garden, two of the students, Jerry Patton and Cody Watkins, told me they grew and sold produce from their home gardens. All of the students said they enjoyed having food they had grown in their school lunches and most of them had discovered new veggies that they liked—red cabbage, zucchini and yellow squash were some mentioned.

They all liked working on the plant sale fundraiser, in which the entire student body took part in growing, packaging, advertising, and selling potted flowers and herbs and vegetable starts. One student, Jonica Cooke, didn’t want to sell the plants she had worked so hard to grow because she was afraid that the people who bought them wouldn’t care for them as much as the students did.

The David School plastic mulchingJonica said, “I used to get stuff that people grew and made and I didn’t take care of it. But now I know all the hard work that goes in to growing something.”

I enjoyed my visit with the Inch by Inch students and the tour of their great garden. I found both brimming with life. I especially appreciated what student Coty Moore told me about his experience working on the project: “I used to think that gardening was pretty useless. But now I think that when you plant a garden you believe in tomorrow.”

After my visit to the David School’s Inch by Inch garden, I have to agree with Coty: I’m thinking tomorrow is growing pretty good.

(Note: Since this article was written, Jann Knappage has taken a position with Community Farm Alliance as the Eastern Kentucky Farm to Table Coordinator!)