PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez describes features of Starlight Elementary School's garden and teaching kitchen.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Q&A: Garden-focused learning sprouts at Watsonville’s Starlight Elementary, with an Emeril connection

Starlight Elementary School students will have access to a state-of-the-art garden and kitchen center next fall after the Pajaro Valley Unified district won a national grant to fund its innovation. We talked with Starlight Principal Jackie Medina on how it happened and what it will do.

Signature graphic for Jackie Media's Q&A

Come next fall, Starlight Elementary School’s 600 students will find more of their daily education in their new nationally financed garden. They’ll work the soil — and learn culinary skills, food and kitchen safety, health and nutrition, and lots about food culture. Then, there’s the in-their-hands science: learning biological sciences while studying plants and insects, data collection, conservation and environmental science and weather and climate.

The Watsonville school received about $2 million to make the project possible.

The Emeril Lagasse Foundation named Starlight Elementary the fourth school in the United States to construct an Emeril Culinary Garden and Teaching Kitchen. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse launched the foundation in 2002 to promote garden learning for children.

The $500,000 grant allowed the Pajaro Valley Unified School District to complete its fundraising and to create the state-of-the-art facility. It’s a big one. The garden and learning center itself is spread over an 8,000-square-foot space. The teaching kitchen accommodates lots of kids within it 1,543 square feet.

Starlight Principal Jackie Medina says that the garden and kitchen will be ready for fall use, with construction slated to be finished this summer. Starlight’s 600 TK-5th grade students each will see about 45 minutes of instruction in the garden and kitchen each week.

“I just think it will be really beautiful to have parents, community members and partners teaching students alongside one another,” Medina said during a tour of the grounds last Friday.

Starlight Elementary School Principal Jackie Medina.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The longer-range plan: to expand the garden use to other PVUSD students and integrate programs with such local partners as Second Harvest Food Bank. For example, the food bank will offer nutrition workshops for students’ parents in the kitchen.

The new garden learning project builds on work Starlight and PVUSD have done with Life Lab, a Santa Cruz-based company founded in 1979. Life Lab consults with schools and organizations to develop garden-based learning programs and training educators in garden-centered instruction.

For the new program, two instructors — one garden-oriented and the other kitchen-based — will work full time at Starlight.

In total, the project cost $2 million. In addition to the Lagasse Foundation’s $500,000, district developer fees — collected from commercial and residential property developers — provided another $500,000. Donations from foundations, community members and businesses provided another $714,150. The district is still seeking over $285,850 in funding from local donors for the remaining balance.

Medina, who started working at Starlight Elementary School as a teacher 17 years ago, believes this project will have a deep, lasting impact on students’ lives. Lookout talked to Medina about it.

Lookout: What will the students actually be doing?

Jackie Medina: The culinary garden teaching kitchen project is a lot like the programs that we have in place already with Life Lab — where the students have garden education, and cooking, culinary education, with Life Lab instructors — but it’s going to be amplified. We’ll have a state-of-the-art instructional kitchen, where the students will be able to get instruction in the space with the teacher. So not only are they learning about cooking, they’re learning about nutrition, they’re learning about health, they’re learning math and measurements, but they’re also learning life skills like how to take care of themselves, how to cut safely, how to clean properly and how to be responsible.

And then for garden education, I would say they are not just reading about science, they’re doing science. They are hands-on learning, doing science. I’m working with our math department, our language arts department, and our science department, and those specialists are working with our garden and culinary instructors to integrate the experience. So for example, fifth grade is learning about corn. They’re learning everything about corn. They’re learning the energy uses of corn, how corn is a food that we eat, that it’s feed for animals, and the sacredness of corn in certain cultures. Instead of just learning and reading about it, what we’re going to try to do is bring them out to plant corn, learn about corn, touch corn, and in that way hook the kids on learning about corn in the garden. And then go study it in language arts. So that’s what we’re trying to do is integrate the content learning across all these core subjects into the practice that we do out in the garden and in the kitchen.

Lookout: How did Starlight Elementary become the fourth out of five schools selected in the country to have an Emeril Culinary Garden and Teaching Kitchen?

Medina: Life Lab found this program for us. They write the curriculum for the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, and so Life Lab connected PVUSD to the grant opportunity. And Emeril Lagasse Foundation’s staff came out, and it was quite a lengthy interview process. So we’re very fortunate that we got it. But I think it’s because we demonstrate our commitment to the whole community, and that really fits their vision. And Starlight, we’ve had programming with Life Lab for six years, and we’ve had a garden for longer than that. And we’re an Ocean Guardian School, so we already teach about environmental education and sustainability. That’s a priority, and my teachers are really into it. And Life Lab recognizes that Starlight teachers are on board. They are such advocates of this work. So it’s just a really good location. And we have an incredible parent community and teaching community to take on big projects and make them successful.

PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez in front of Starlight Elementary School's garden and kitchen project
PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez in front of Starlight Elementary School’s garden and kitchen project.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Why is this important for the Watsonville community?

Medina: I think it’s really important because we’re an agricultural community. Many of our families are working in the culinary and food service industry. I think that parents are going to have an opportunity to share their expertise and knowledge. I just think it will be really beautiful to have parents, community members and partners teaching students alongside one another. And I think that it’s important for the students to see and do the work that many of their families do. We want to produce students out of the district who are prepared, knowledgeable and equipped to fill those positions not just in the fields, but in the offices. And having these pathways that start from elementary school to really develop those skills and experiences, to continue to support our community and fill our jobs with our people from the community.