FAIRFIELD — Walter Fitzgerald Campus began building and planting a new garden at the school this past spring, celebrating the project as a community in June.

The school garden is among several gardening projects across the district that have evolved in recent years. The district kicked off the school gardens program with a garden at every school in 2010, according to Director of Operations Thomas Cullen.

Since then, some schools lost garden space as they built additions, currently leaving 13 to 14 schools with gardens. The district hopes to find new planting sites at schools that lost their space, according to Cullen.

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Interested mentors

Those interested in helping the students by mentoring the gardening program can contact Kari Hellmann at khellman@fairfieldschools.org or by calling 203-255-8384.

Walter Fitzgerald science teacher Kari Hellmann began the school’s garden process as a classroom project for her biology students, part of Walter Fitzgerald’s emphasis on project-based learning that began last year.

Students wrote a proposal for the garden, presented the plan to Deputy Superintendent Karen Parks and gained approval to build the garden on school property. A $2,000 grant from Whole Foods helped finance many of the materials and the town donated soil for the project.

Students built and will continue to completely run the garden, Hellmann said. As the next step of the project, she hopes to have her new biology students this fall work with a local farmer’s market to plant crops the students can sell at a school farmer’s market. Hellmann and the students are still in search of a mentor for the project.

For her students, Hellmann sees the garden as a chance for students to take a break from the classroom but keep learning. She has seen the project bring students together and increase the sense of community on campus.

“They love to garden. They are learning so much about home-grown food, how to compost, what we can compost and what we can’t compost,” Hellmann said. “They also like the relaxation of it.”

Walter Fitzgerald Campus is a program of Fairfield’s two other high schools and is located in a former parochial school building on Biro Street.

While Walter Fitzgerald’s garden is a newer addition, former district parent Annelise McCay began working to launch school gardens in the district about a decade ago. McCay’s daughter attended Roger Sherman Elementary School and because she had a severe nut allergy and would sit at the nut-free table by herself, family members went to the school to join her for lunch. McCay said the experience opened their eyes to what students were eating.

“It wasn’t so great,” she said. “We noticed that a lot of it ended up in the garbage.”

Her son later attended the school and as more information came out about non-organic and genetically modified food and children’s health, McCay became interested in a way to bring healthier options to school. At a PTA meeting addressing school lunches, McCay said she pitched the idea of a school garden that could offer healthy, fresh food and allow kids to take ownership in the food they grew.

After research into the concept, checking out a garden at another Connecticut school and her experience with her own garden, McCay worked with teachers and other PTA members to bring a garden to Roger Sherman and then some other district schools, she said.

Tying the projects to curriculum, McCay said, was vital for the project and for working with students on the gardens to fit into teachers’ busy schedules. She said the garden at Sherman began with kindergartners creating a literary garden, an A-Z garden for first-graders and a Three Sisters garden with corn, beans, squash and sunflowers for third-graders learning about Native American studies, among other beds for each grade.

McCay is no longer involved with the gardens, since her children graduated from the district, but she said she hopes the district will see the value in the gardens and put resources into planting them.

Fairfield Warde High School biology teacher Jennifer Racioppo helped begin a garden in the school’s Townsend House courtyard about seven or eight years ago. Parents were pressing for a garden, Racioppo said, and she quickly got on board with the idea in the hopes she could use it in her biology classes.

The project began as two 4-by-4 garden boxes and has expanded to now include four 4-by-4 boxes and an 8-by-4 garden box. Student involvement has also grown over the years. The Garden Club that runs the project, overseen by Racioppo, began with 10 students and expanded to more than 50 last year.

Garden crops include asparagus, broccoli, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, tomatoes, perennial herbs, onions, garlic and peppers, Racioppo said.

Students plant, weed, water and seed the garden. Barlow’s, a student-run restaurant at Warde, has used produce from the garden for major events in the past, but students and faculty take home and cook most of what is grown.

Racioppo said having the garden offers her students life skills and understanding beyond what they can get in a traditional learning setting.

“The true learning doesn’t occur in the classroom,” she said. “Students learn by experience and when they see a potato plant, and then they pull a potato plant out of the ground and see the potatoes at the base of the plant, they have a true understanding of where their food comes from.”

Lweiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16