This fall Victor Elementary School will join Alta School and Tetonia Elementary School in having a garden classroom on campus and outdoor-focused instruction from Mountain Roots Education.
Experiential outdoor education is a crucial component of the Mountain Roots mission. Originally known as Full Circle Education, the nonprofit started its first school garden program at Teton Science School’s Mountain Academy Teton Valley campus. As a result, the private school in Victor now has its own full-time garden educator.
Mountain Roots built on that success around 15 years ago with the beloved Tetonia Elementary garden, which includes a greenhouse, raised beds, an orchard, and a stage, thanks to grants, donations, staff time, and parent volunteers. The Alta School garden classroom soon followed. In the Mountain Roots-specific curriculum, students from each grade learn about growing plants, get their hands dirty, explore composting, do art projects, and even take field trips to snuggle goats and eat cheese at Winter Winds Farm. The kids have celebrations twice a year—a salad party in the spring semester and a harvest pizza party every fall, eating the fruits of their own labor, freshly prepared and then fired in the Mountain Roots mobile pizza oven.
“I love what we’re doing, the kids love it, the teachers love it, the parents love it,” said interim executive director Hayes Swinney. “I think it’s important in general and especially now, with everything else going on, this feels like a bright light. That feeling of self-sufficiency is valuable to impart on kids and plays into the themes of our adult workshops—using resources responsibly.”
Swinney had applied for an educator position at Mountain Roots last year while she was living in Seattle, but the timing didn’t line up. When she and her family moved back to Teton Valley, she inquired about becoming a board member, but at her first meeting in the summer of 2021, former executive director Haley Slone announced that she would be leaving the organization. It was a logical step to take the position, Swinney said, and added that she would be open to dropping the “interim” title.
At the beginning of the 2021 school year, Slone put a garden education program into place at Victor Elementary; with that addition, Mountain Roots worked with 300 students through the year. Now, with the help of grants from the Teton Springs Foundation, CHC Foundation, and Youth Philanthropy program, and support from the Teton Conservation District and Friends of the Teton River, Victor’s garden will come to fruition this fall. Designed and planned out by master volunteers Miranda Milligan and Judy Allen, the garden will be the biggest yet, in order to accommodate Victor’s much larger student body. There’s a work party tentatively scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 17 (depending on irrigation installation by Trail Creek Irrigation, which is donating to the effort). Sign up to help at mountainrootseducation.org.
TES and VES principal Megan Christiansen and Alta principal Jenna Beck have played a pivotal role in helping the gardens thrive, Swinney said. “They’ve both been huge advocates for the program and work hard to keep the gardens operating.”
In a letter of support for the Victor garden, Christiansen wrote, “It has been amazing to expand this program to Victor Elementary School because I have been able to see first-hand the benefits of such a meaningful learning experience.”
She later expanded on that idea in an email to the Teton Valley News.
“I just know what this kind of program can do for students and the community based on Tetonia’s example,” Christiansen said. “Children learn responsibility, respect, and hard work, and they also reap the benefits when they harvest the fruits of their labor. We are very lucky to have such great parents and staff support for our children to learn these values.”
Driggs Elementary doesn’t yet have a garden, mainly due to capacity issues, Swinney said. But it’s in the Mountain Roots strategic plan to get involved at DES as well. With more manpower and partnerships with other organizations like University of Idaho Extension and 4-H, the curriculum could be introduced to the valley’s other schools too.
“We’d love to expand and have a garden program in every school,” Swinney said. “There’s an awesome opportunity with older grades, and since there’s so much interest around here in smaller producers, to add a business element to the educational program.”
For now, she has heard a lot of excitement from Victor families about the new garden classroom, and expects to see an involved and enthusiastic garden community on the south end, not unlike the one that already exists in Tetonia.
“In Tetonia there are a lot of farmers and ranchers, and we see kids who are used to having their hands in the dirt and working hard,” Swinney said. “Megan joked that we should have the Tetonia kids come show the Victor kids how it’s done. There’s such a rich agricultural heritage in this valley, and this program fits really nicely with that and helps carry it on.”