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 Students Dig in for SDCOE Garden

Students and teachers at a county juvenile detention facility for girls have spent months planning a garden project for the San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) main campus, and their efforts paid off recently when they finally were able to get their hands dirty.

On Oct. 26, a half-dozen students from the Girls Rehabilitation Facility joined horticulture instructors Leigh Adams and Joni Gabriel and a handful of Master Gardener volunteers to start on the garden outside the Juvenile Court and Community Schools offices in Linda Vista.

"We were approached to create an inspiring, collaborative space outside, and to do it as an educational activity," Gabriel said.

The outdoor collaborative space – which will feature three pergolas, pavers, seating, and garden beds with drought-tolerant plants – was proposed by JCCS Executive Director Stacy Spector. The Juvenile Court and Community Schools offices recently were transformed into flexible learning space, and Spector said that team members knew they wanted to extend the model outdoors.

The big, off-site project for the students grew out of the horticulture program at the Girls Rehabilitation Facility. The facility's education program is run by SDCOE. The girls have been placed in the highly structured program, located in the Birdland neighborhood of San Diego, by Juvenile Court.

Gabriel helped establish the Growing Opportunities Gardening Program at the facility in cooperation with the county Probation Department, SDCOE, and the University of California Cooperative Extension. The garden also received additional support from the Centers for Disease Control, the county Health and Human Services Agency, and individual donors.

Gabriel, a Master Gardener herself, drew volunteers from the Master Gardener Association of San Diego County, whose members are trained and supervised by the UC Cooperative Extension.

"After visiting the garden at GRF, we knew we had the experts available in our students, and with Joni and Leigh, to design and create a space that staff and visitors to SDCOE could utilize," Spector said.

Planning for the SDCOE garden began early this year and included a site tour by students.

"We guided the girls through a site analysis, having them look at water access, sunlight and shadows, nearby structures and views, how people use the surrounding area," Gabriel said. "They also took photos, talked with stakeholders, and collected soil samples."

The students researched collaborative space and studied examples, worked on designs, and have propagated plants in their Growing Opportunities garden.

"Our belief in (Juvenile Court and Community Schools) is to provide authentic learning opportunities where students apply and transfer knowledge and skills into real-world experiences," Spector said.

Last month, the girls worked side by side with their teachers and volunteers, turning dirt in the 11-foot-by-70-foot space. They met their goal for the first work day — installing posts for three shade structures. That required digging a dozen 30-inch-deep holes in the rocky dirt.

Adams and Gabriel said they hope to have the project completed in six to eight weeks. Their work days at the SDCOE campus will depend on the availability of the students and volunteers.

In the meantime, the students will keep busy in the Growing Opportunities garden, preparing plants to transfer to the SDCOE project.

"(Gardening is) really therapeutic," Adams said. "I think (the students) get a lot out of it, seeing the product of what they're doing. I think it builds self-confidence … putting in hard work and seeing the benefits of it."