AUSTIN (KXAN) — Brooke Elementary school in east Austin won a sustainability award from the National Wildlife Federation, becoming the fourth school in the district to be recognized by the organization.
Students at Brooke tend gardens, growing some of the food served in their cafeteria, as well as maintain pollinator gardens, a fruit orchard, and until recently, beehives. They also care for chickens and rabbits on school property.
Tuesday, 5th-grader Freddy Hernandez and 4th-grader Ruben Hernandez stripped a garden box of its rotting wood frame and replaced that with cinder blocks, part of the work they do every day.
“I just like working over here,” 9-year-old Ruben said, “because it’s fun.”
He’d never done this kind of work before coming to the school, he told KXAN, but he appreciates raising animals and gardening. “We don’t kill plants, we make plants happy,” he said.
The Green Flag Award is given to schools who show a commitment to sustainability in specific areas, including food sourcing. Three other Austin ISD schools have qualified since 2015, including Clint Small Middle School’s Green Tech Academy, Eastside Memorial High School, and Patton Elementary School.
Six schools in Texas have won the award (the other two are in Houston) and the NWF has awarded just 112 schools across the country with the honor.
At Brooke, the process to turn the campus into a natural landscape dates back 20 years, to when reading teacher Sam DeSanto started there.
“This campus was known as being…real barren,” he said. “No trees, no plants, and people used to say, ‘Well, it’s ugly and it’s blight.'”
DeSanto started planting trees all those years ago, and now they’ve grown into towering shade trees along the fence line and scattered around the campus. “It kind of just slowly grew on its own,” he said. “So, after we would plant something, people would hear about it and say, ‘Well, I have some things, would you like that?’ ‘Of course,’ and, ‘I’ve got some things, would you like that?'”
Aquaponics systems grew up around campus, too, as did compost piles and a butterfly garden. This year students tagged monarch butterflies to track their progress on their migration to Mexico.
He couldn’t have done all the projects on his own; it takes a lot of teachers — and a lot of students — to grow and maintain the gardens. The school’s new principal brought the rabbits and chickens to the campus a few years ago, DeSanto explained, to help the kids with their social-emotional learning.
The beehives are another more recent addition. “We also get honey from the bees and we sell them to people who want honey” at a farmers’ market, Ruben said.
The bee colonies at the school died off due to an infestation of small hive beetles, DeSanto explained, but they plan to add more. Students tend to those as well, donning child-sized bee suits to monitor the insects and collect honey.
“We always have some project that we’re working on,” DeSanto said.
The pollinator garden students are building now will likely be one of the last, though, he said, for the simple fact that they’re running out of space.
“I’ll be retiring in the next five, six years, but these trees will always be here,” DeSanto said. “They’re not going anywhere.”
The school will host a ceremony in April to celebrate the award. City and NWF officials will be on hand to raise the green flag on the school’s flagpole, and students will be stationed at various projects around campus to explain them to visitors.