Patton garden project: From ‘what if’ to wow

Four years ago, the Patton Project took root with a series of “what ifs?”

On Friday, Oct. 24, the garden initiative, spearheaded by two teachers at C.F. Patton Middle School, generated “wows” from an appreciative audience.

Well over 100 students, teachers, parents, school administrators, donors, lawmakers, and community partners assembled to celebrate the project’s newest acquisition: an array of solar panels that will power the greenhouse.

C.F. Patton Middle School teachers Kim Hisler (left) and Betsy Ballard explain the history of the Patton Project.

C.F. Patton Middle School teachers Kim Hisler (left) and Betsy Ballard explain the history of the Patton Project.

Since the gardens’ humble beginning in September 2010, it has garnered awards; produced 5,000 pounds of produce, most of which goes to area shelters and food cupboards; positively impacted hundreds of students; and attracted legions of admirers – all at virtually no cost to the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.

Under brilliant blue skies conducive to harnessing the sun’s energy, teachers Betsy Ballard and Kim Hisler, whose wishful thinking spawned the project, presided over Friday’s ribbon cutting for the solar installation.

Ballard and Hisler expressed thanks to dozens of people who helped along the way. They included the school staff, administrators, and the school board, as well as local businesses, organizations, and residents.

Officials gather to cut the ribbon for the new solar array for the Patton Project, a garden initiative conceived by two middle-school teachers.

Officials gather to cut the ribbon for the new solar array for the Patton Project, a garden initiative conceived by two middle-school teachers.

“When it came to the solar panels, Kim and I realized that adding them would bring us one step closer to being completely sustainable, and that the greenhouse would not have to draw from district energy sources,” Ballard said.

She explained that they approached Tri-M Group LLC, “which has a reputation for lending a helping hand,” and it organized a philanthropic posse that included United Electric Supplier, Mo-Tech LLC, and Schletter Inc. In addition to a bank of panels adjacent to the school’s raised beds, the installation features a video dashboard in the middle-school lobby that displays an energy equivalence chart so students can visualize the sun’s power.

Despite the frost, the Patton Project's raised beds are still flourishing - and producing.

Despite the frost, the Patton Project's raised beds are still flourishing - and producing.

Sen. Dominic F. Pileggi and Rep. Chris Ross each applauded the project, citing the benefits for the students as well as the community. “You’re learning some amazing lessons here,” Ross said to the students.

Patton Principal Tim Hoffman pointed out that the students and teachers are also generating energy that isn’t always noticed. “There is so much that goes into this behind the scenes,” he said.

Phoebe Kitson-Davis, program manager of the Chester County Food Bank, said it’s hard to imagine that “here in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, three percent of people live in poverty or below.” And, just a mile and a half away in Kennett Square, nearly 40 percent of the people live in poverty, she said.

A dashboard in the middle-school lobby will help students monitor the sun's output.

A dashboard in the middle-school lobby will help students monitor the sun's output.

One raised bed can produce 10 pounds of food a week during the 10-week growing season, Kitson-Davis said. But the high-achieving Patton students “blow that statistic right out of the water,” she added.

Patton, which started with a greenhouse and 16 raised beds, now has 30 beds; an outdoor classroom; a pergola, where grapevines are being trained; three hydroponic tanks; and two 30-foot-long high tunnels for extending the harvest. Kitson-Davis said the students are providing fresh produce from March until December.

Luci McClure, co-president of the Patton PTO, said she believes the Family and Consumer Science curriculum is effectively helping the students master the 3 Cs: “cultivation, compassion, and community.”

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When the FCS students aren't gardening, they're often making quilts for sick children. Eighth-graders Madison Detweiler (from left), Ashlyn Lauder, and Emily Holmes show off some of their handiwork.

The audience also heard from some of the students who have participated in the program. In addition to taking the hands-on FCS elective in middle school, students also have opportunities to contribute through Honor Society or other service groups, or to volunteer with their families during Adopt-a-Bed, which involves tending a bed for a week each summer.

Aidan Boyle, a Unionville High freshman, said he participated in the Brown Bag Lunch program, which involved making sandwiches for the needy. “It feels really great when you help the less fortunate, and you know you’ve made a difference in their lives,” he said.

Hadley McKnight, a Patton eighth-grader, said she appreciated learning how to grow produce and was amazed by the bounty a small plot could produce, but she said the highlight of the program occurred after the harvest. “It gives me a great feeling inside to know that I had a direct hand in feeding hundreds of people in need that live right here in this community,” she said.

The school's high tunnels are tended by school employee Janis Robertson. Teacher Betsy Ballard calls her the weekend warrior of the project.

The school's high tunnels are tended during off hours by school employee Janis Robertson. Teacher Betsy Ballard calls her the weekend warrior of the project.

Speaking after the program ended, Kathy Do, a member of the school board, said she believes the students are receiving invaluable insight into sustainability. Even though it doesn’t often make headlines, “the consequences of failing to protect the environment are probably more serious in the long run than Ebola or terrorism.”

Another board member, Carolyn Daniels, said she was impressed with what her son learned from the project, but it came with consequences. “Now he’s asking me where the chicken I bought came from,” she said, adding that she appreciates his interest and awareness.

In 2011, Patton won the Environmental Community Service Award for donating more than 50 pounds of vegetables to the Chester County Food Bank. Sponsored by Wawa, NBC 10, and the law firm of Manko, Gold, Katcher & Fox, LLP, the honor came with a $5,000 grant.

In 2014, the program was selected to be the Pennsylvania nominee for the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools award.  Longwood Gardens, which has offered its expertise to the project, brings teachers from its National Teacher Institute for Garden-Based Learning to visit each summer.

Despite the accolades, Ballard and Hisler aren’t done dreaming. Next on their wish list: expanding the composting operation.

About CFLive Staff

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