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written by
Jeff Allen

A Green Education

photographs by
Andrew Cebulka

Volume: 26

These are the students’ plants, and the lessons of the garden go far beyond the harvest...

The garden at Haut Gap Middle School appeared dense with green, even in the dead of winter. School principal Travis Benintendo talked excitedly as we meandered among the garden boxes. Collard greens and cabbages flourished beneath Spanish moss. These are the students’ plants, and the lessons of the garden go far beyond the harvest of cruciferous vegetables.

The scene at Haut Gap was not always what it is today. Fifteen years ago, this school ranked one of the worst, with subpar test scores and a community that had all but given up hope for the futures of its students. It was decidedly not diverse—94 percent of the students were classified as high poverty, and racial minority hovered around 88 percent, a deep contrast to the affluence of the surrounding coastal communities. Dr. Art Jones, a former school superintendent from suburban Chicago and a long-time Kiawah resident, understood the needs firsthand. “When I walked in eight years ago no one was smiling, no one looked like they wanted to be there,” he observed. A failing school, they called it.
Jones, alongside Kiawah resident and volunteer tutor Pete Trees, got involved early. As a first step, the school district enacted a partial magnet program aimed at attracting students from more affluent backgrounds, a movement that research showed would provide increased opportunity for the student body as a whole. Such a movement needed a change in school culture, and when principal Benintendo was hired in 2007, he proposed a creative plan to help children, faculty, and parents understand the value of local community.

He set a goal to coach Haut Gap students to be globally competitive but community minded. “We have to teach them that you can’t just be a taker. We want them to be personally successful, but we also want to instill an equal concern for what happens in their local environment and an understanding of how their actions affect others.” His new focus stressed a vision of sustainability, and he quickly created an academic community focused on stewardship and sensitivity to the environment.

Blackbaud partnered with the school to build a system of raised garden beds through the annual Day of Caring program. Then students grew and sold vegetables to raise money for the Lowcountry Open Land Trust to save the Angel Oak from encroaching development. Initial success led to increased efforts. Berkeley Electric Cooperative installed a four-kilowatt solar panel that helps to power the school. A digital display gives students data on its usage and performance. Bosch built specialized trash bins that allow students to visualize the amount and makeup up their school’s various waste streams. Within a few months, the students reduced their landfill trash by 80 percent, an effort that led Haut Gap to switch from the use of disposable Styrofoam lunch trays back to the “old-fashioned hard trays that we can put in the dishwasher and reuse,” Benintendo proudly pointed out. They began a program with Blackbird Market to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for teachers every Friday, and with The Sprout to showcase natural juices, exposing students to more variety and expanding young palates beyond the predominate flavors of prepackaged foods. In 2014 Charleston County recognized the school as the “Green Team of the Year.”

Last April local leaders from the Sea Island Partners for Youth asked the Kiawah Partners if they would get involved in the effort, and they eagerly came to the table. The partners will help execute Benintendo’s next visionary project: an outdoor classroom and vegetable production facility. The structure will serve as an innovative learning space, linking the school curriculum directly to garden activities, as well as provide a GAP-certified (Good Agricultural Practices) vegetable post-processing area from which the produce from the garden can be integrated into the school cafeteria menu. “We have collaborated with them to assist in the conceptual design for the project,” said Ray Pantlik, a Kiawah engineer. Jones added, “Their initiative has allowed Haut Gap to be much farther along.” Kiawah Partners has pledged $15,000 towards the effort.

In a few short years, Haut Gap has remediated the racial and social imbalances that long plagued its reputation. The poverty rate has declined significantly, and students who might have enrolled in local private schools now learn within a student body that more closely reflects the makeup of the surrounding community. In science alone, eighth graders moved from 48 percent to 78 percent passage on the state test between 2010 and 2014. The numbers tell a compelling tale, but the students themselves, out in the garden to volunteer on a blustery Saturday afternoon, provide the demonstrable proof. They know well the changes that can occur if you are willing to challenge the status quo and work together to improve an environment that serves everyone.

Jones, alongside Kiawah resident and volunteer tutor Pete Trees, got involved early. As a first step, the school district enacted a partial magnet program aimed at attracting students from more affluent backgrounds, a movement that research showed would provide increased opportunity for the student body as a whole. Such a movement needed a change in school culture, and when principal Benintendo was hired in 2007, he proposed a creative plan to help children, faculty, and parents understand the value of local community.

He set a goal to coach Haut Gap students to be globally competitive but community minded. “We have to teach them that you can’t just be a taker. We want them to be personally successful, but we also want to instill an equal concern for what happens in their local environment and an understanding of how their actions affect others.” His new focus stressed a vision of sustainability, and he quickly created an academic community focused on stewardship and sensitivity to the environment.

Blackbaud partnered with the school to build a system of raised garden beds through the annual Day of Caring program. Then students grew and sold vegetables to raise money for the Lowcountry Open Land Trust to save the Angel Oak from encroaching development. Initial success led to increased efforts. Berkeley Electric Cooperative installed a four-kilowatt solar panel that helps to power the school. A digital display gives students data on its usage and performance. Bosch built specialized trash bins that allow students to visualize the amount and makeup up their school’s various waste streams. Within a few months, the students reduced their landfill trash by 80 percent, an effort that led Haut Gap to switch from the use of disposable Styrofoam lunch trays back to the “old-fashioned hard trays that we can put in the dishwasher and reuse,” Benintendo proudly pointed out. They began a program with Blackbird Market to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for teachers every Friday, and with The Sprout to showcase natural juices, exposing students to more variety and expanding young palates beyond the predominant flavors of prepackaged foods. In 2014 Charleston County recognized the school as the “Green Team of the Year.”

Last April local leaders from the Sea Island Partners for Youth asked the Kiawah Partners if they would get involved in the effort, and they eagerly came to the table. The partners will help execute Benintendo’s next visionary project: an outdoor classroom and vegetable production facility. The structure will serve as an innovative learning space, linking the school curriculum directly to garden activities, as well as provide a GAP-certified (Good Agricultural Practices) vegetable post-processing area from which the produce from the garden can be integrated into the school cafeteria menu.

“We have collaborated with them to assist in the conceptual design for the project,” said Ray Pantlik, a Kiawah engineer. Jones added, “Their initiative has allowed Haut Gap to be much farther along.” Kiawah Partners has pledged $15,000 towards the effort.

In a few short years, Haut Gap has remediated the racial and social imbalances that long plagued its reputation. The poverty rate has declined significantly, and students who might have enrolled in local private schools now learn within a student body that more closely reflects the makeup of the surrounding community. In science alone, eighth graders moved from 48 percent to 78 percent passage on the state test between 2010 and 2014. The numbers tell a compelling tale, but the students themselves, out in the garden to volunteer on a blustery Saturday afternoon, provide the demonstrable proof. They know well the changes that can occur if you are willing to challenge the status quo and work together to improve an environment that serves everyone.

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