Desert Oasis High School student Justin Williams, 15, studies a bed of chard. His eyes follow the plant’s stalks until he spots a fuzzy, green caterpillar inching along a leaf. He plucks it from the plant and observes it in his hand.
“I always find them and pick them off,” Williams said. “They’re not good for our garden.”
Special education teacher Jennifer Davis considers Williams the best caterpillar hunter in her class.
“They’re really hard to find because they’re green like the plants,” Davis said, “but he enjoys picking them off because he knows he’s helping the garden.”
Davis constructed a quarter-acre garden on the Desert Oasis campus, 6600 W. Erie Ave., to offer hands-on learning for students with disabilities.
In the garden, the students have learned to grow and harvest herbs and vegetables, such as basil, parsley, lettuce, carrots, green beans and radishes. They also improve their fine and gross motor skills and apply what they’ve learned to other school subjects.
“They journal about what they observed, what they did and what they need to do,” Davis said. “We come out here with graphs and rulers to record the growth of the plants. We read about gardening and make stamp art with leaves. We can do a lot.”
Farmers from Garden Farms of Nevada work with the students on picking seeds to plant and teach them proper plant care, according to Davis.
“At home, I have an herb garden and an apricot and pear tree,” Davis said. “Besides that, I’m learning as we go here. I’m learning to be a gardener alongside my students.”
In addition to teaching core school subjects, Davis also hopes the garden will provide the students with vocational skill sets.
“They’re in charge of things like trimming, watering, fertilizing and pulling weeds,” Davis said. “These are garden skills that you would need to work in a plant nursery, and I’m having them learn them for potential jobs someday.”
The idea of creating a school garden struck Davis last year while trying to design a course for students with special needs since recycling and building maintenance programs have already been implemented at the school.
“It just hit me out of the blue,” Davis said. “I just thought it would be cool if we had a garden here. Although it’s intended for students with special needs, I wanted all the students to benefit from it.”
While researching the idea, Davis stumbled upon studies that showed school gardens help increase self-esteem, positive behavior and test scores in special needs students. With the support of the administration, she started this school year with eight planting beds in the garden.
“My goal is to fill the area with 40 garden beds because that’s all that will fit,” Davis said. “We currently have 14 beds, with four more on the way that we have received through grants. Each one costs $910, so that’s like $40,000. It’s a lot of money.”
To help with funding, Eco Insurance owner Matt Neely agreed to partner with Davis to sponsor a charity golf tournament set for May 31 at the Silverstone Golf Club, 8600 Cupp Drive.
“For a lot of these kids, having a responsibility and taking care of something is a life skill they may not be getting,” Neely said. “This garden gives them a sense of pride. It gives them something to look at and say, ‘I did that. I created this.’ ”
Davis has taught in the Clark County School District for 24 years. With five years left before she retires, she hopes to build a kitchen and dining room adjacent to the school’s garden.
“Gardening is an activity these students love doing, and they’re learning about real life,” Davis said. “It not only prepares them for school or a job, but it helps prepare them to become independent members of our society.”
For more information or to register for the golf event, visit tinyurl.com/m5ybyy3.
Contact Southwest View reporter Caitlyn Belcher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0403.