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Crops grow in a high tunnel at the NECIC urban microform.

MANSFIELD -- Students at Malabar Intermediate School are about to get their hands dirty.

Malabar will begin an on-campus urban farming initiative next school year. By the time classes resume in autumn, there will be a high tunnel behind the school where students can grow their own crops.

Malabar Principal Tom Hager said one goal of the urban farm initiative is to get students more engaged in their learning.

“Last spring we were talking about we need to do things differently,” Hager said. “We just need to do more outside of the box, hands-on activities.”

The district is working with the North End Community Improvement Collaborative (NECIC) and Richland Gro-Op, a collaborative of urban and rural micro farmers in Richland County, to craft the program. 

Research suggests school gardening programs increase student participation and involvement and boost academic success, sixth grade teacher Stephanie Uhde said during a presentation to the board of education.

School gardening also has the potential to benefit physical and mental health by reducing anxiety, boosting self-esteem and improving students’ knowledge of healthy foods.

Udhe added the chance to plant and harvest crops will provide countless opportunities for project-based learning in science, math and social studies. Students can learn about soil types and photosynthesis, measurements and fractions, sustainability and economics.

“When the springtime comes, we’ll start planting a crop and our hope is that our kids can actually go downtown to the farmers market and sell what they grew,” Hager said.

District leaders say the Malabar project is just the beginning. It’s part of a larger effort to create a career pathway in agribusiness and production systems for Mansfield City Schools students.

“We do see this as a new industry sector in Richland County. We've been talking about it with the business community as well and so we wanted to see how to get kids involved as a pipeline to continue this work in our community,” said Deanna West-Torrence, executive director of the NECIC.

Middle school students will be able to take a plant and animal science class this fall, said Nikia Fletcher, interim director of the district’s career tech department. High school courses will be added the following year, including greenhouse and nursery management, the science and technology of food, animal and plant sciences and business management in agriculture.

High school administrators have already identified a site on-campus for a high tunnel. Fletcher is currently applying for grants to fund the project. If it comes to fruition, she hopes agribusiness students can grow produce for the culinary arts CTE program.

“Agriculture goes way outside just putting seeds in the ground,” said Walter Bonham, an entrepreneur and founding member of Richland Gro-Op. “Getting these kids outside and getting the conversation started about things that excite them that they never knew was there -- it opens up the job opportunities and future career opportunities.”

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at katie.ellington@richlandsource.com