Garden Gives Students New Life
By Jeremy T. Gerlach
Monday, May 12, 2014
As the temperature climbed into the 90s on a recent school day at Bowden Elementary School, hectic shouts of students at recess rang out while mud and wet mulch flew all over the school’s garden.
If you ask Christopher Contreras, who came to the campus through Teach for America and rebuilt the garden as a way to engage the school’s autistic students, there is nowhere he or his kids would rather be.
“Sitting at a desk doesn’t work for these guys,” Contreras said of his students, all of whom are mid- to low-functioning autistic. “We needed a way that gets them less cognitively stressed, and we wanted to learn about the environment.”
“Planting a garden is more sensory-based, it’s kinesthetic,” he added.
As he helped third grader German Guerrero and second grader Rico Perez plant some yellow castles and okra seeds, Contreras said he’s had the garden — tucked away between three elegant stone walls on the southern side of the campus — up and running for a whole school year now. His kids have grown plants ranging from pumpkins to poinsettias to match the school’s seasonal celebrations like Halloween and Christmas.
Principal Guadalupe Diaz said that Contreras’ efforts have been instrumental to the education of her school’s 12 autistic kids.
“This garden is teaching them life skills, social skills and compassion,” explained Diaz, noting that this is her school’s first year with an autism-specific unit. “This has been a wonderful transition.”
“The garden was abandoned for years, so we rebuilt it with the help of the janitorial staff,” said Contreras, who buys most of the supplies out of his own pocket. “I got the idea for using the garden to teach just by doing some research, finding out more about what makes each kid tick.”
Autistic students, Contreras said, can have problems communicating. “One of the hardest things these guys face is developing those (social skills) like asking for what they want,” he noted. “So we work, in the garden, on getting them to (vocalize) what they need, like tools or plants.”
For Contreras, developing personal connections with each of his students has been key. “Rico loves robots like (Disney’s) Wall-E, while German loves sharks,” he explained. “I have another kid, Leonel, who loves mist, like from a spray bottle. So when we have a successful session out here, I’ll find a way to reward them, like showing (Rico and German) videos of sharks or robots on You Tube.
“Autistic kids demand a very different style of learning, but so many times they are lumped in with kids (with other disabilities) Contreras explained.
Sara Taylor is Contreras’ instructional coach with Teach for America. Taylor said that autism education is starting to become a much more specialized field.
“In the ’90s, kids were misdiagnosed, but now we are getting better at identifying (autism),” Taylor said. “The garden Chris built was a way to put some magic into their education (at Bowden).”
The garden works on more than just an academic level, Contreras pointed out. “I want to leave these guys with a basic set of life and career skills as well,” he said. “We talked about how you could grow vegetables to eat, or sell the poinsettias we grew.”
While Teach for America instructors usually take two-year tours, leave their original communities to teach and don’t always end up in an educational career, Contreras bucks all three trends. He attended Southwest High School, wants to stay at Bowden for a third year and is planning on attending John Hopkins University to get his master’s in business administration and open up his own school for autistic children.
Taylor said that these goals — staying in-community and continuing in educational careers — are becoming more common in areas like San Antonio.
“We have about 19 percent of our incoming (teachers) in TFA coming from San Antonio, which is above the national average,” Taylor explained. “About 60 percent here stay (in careers) in education, which is also higher than the national average.”
“What Chris is doing … is what makes San Antonio special and unique,” Taylor added. “We have people from communities serve in those (same) communities.”
Diaz said that her Teach For America instructors have come from as far away as California or Florida. “We were blessed to have Chris here,” Diaz said, adding that she had offered Contreras some advice about running his own school. “I told him, ‘Keep the kids first, in front of (your own) motivations.’ Once you do that, you can’t go wrong.”