Tij-anique Williams (left) said teacher Chris Jennings “is a great teacher. He looks out for us. When we’re stressed out, he has stepped in and cared.”

At Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore sits a tidy outdoor garden that offers a prime example of what Baltimore students can do with the right tools to harness the power of urban agriculture. Were it not for three dedicated Teach for America alums, it might be just another patch of asphalt.

Since 1992, nearly 2,000 top-performing college graduates have moved to Baltimore as Teach for America recruits, brought here to work as educators for at least two years within the Baltimore City Public School System.

Ninety percent of Teach for America Baltimore corps members and alumni living in Baltimore are continuing to impact education as teachers, school leaders, social entrepreneurs and key players at nonprofits.

Jenna Adams, Amanda Briody and Chris Jennings, all science teachers, each decided to stay put at Frederick Douglass High after they finished their assigned terms. Together, they launched a simple project that would leave a lasting impact: installing garden beds.

Homework: Getting Your Hands Dirty

The school’s urban agriculture garden today is large, with many raised planters boasting carrots, lettuce, squash, herbs, fruits and tomatoes. UnitedHealthCare and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, along with Home Depot, made sizable donations this year, helping to buy mulch, build a greenhouse, add more raised planters and install fencing. Students can be outside as often as weather permits, working and learning in the garden.

Robert Ross has been in the program for the last two years.

“I really like this class,” he said during the spring. “It’s more interesting to get outside and learn and work with your hands. I’ve even joined the YouthWorks summer program and I will work on a farm this summer.”

Teachers Amanda Briody (left) and Jenna Adams (right) hanging in the garden with students.

The teachers even keep their lessons going during when nothing grows. During the winter when it was too cold to weed, dig and water the garden, they taught a cooking and healthy-eating unit within their biology curricula. Students participated in “Chopped”-style exercises, making foods and healthy smoothies in class with veggies from the garden.

A School Caught in the Middle

Founded in 1883, the Mondawmin-based high school boasts an eye-catching roster of graduates, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights activist Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., and former Congressman Kweisi Mfume, to name a few.

And yes, it’s the same high school that found itself smack in the middle of our town’s uprising following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in 2015. Though some outlets initially reported that the students started the unrest, in reality they were trapped at the school during the uprising as the area — including bus service — was shut down.

A small silver lining from what ensued was that foundations, corporations and nonprofits have offered support to the high school. Look no further than the UnitedHealthCare and Ripken Foundations for examples. A key recipient of that generous funding and help was Frederick Douglass High’s urban agriculture program.

Teaching on the Front Lines

The premise of Teach for America (TFA), a national nonprofit based on founder Wendy Kopp’s Princeton University senior thesis, is to recruit high-performing college grads to teach in high-need urban and rural partner schools.

The power of TFA lies in the partnership approach with local public school systems. To help corps members become best-in-classroom teachers, TFA provides the support, guidance and mentoring needed to help newbie teachers thrive in often-challenging school systems.

Adams said that training was crucial to her success.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and with Teach for America’s support, and really my co-workers here at Frederick Douglass, I grew into a better and, hopefully, more valuable teacher,” she said.

Briody sees herself and her colleagues as exemplary products of the program.

“Teach for America brought me to Baltimore and gave me the chance to explore, and here I am eight years later. I think each of us is really TFA. We each bring our own spirit into the classroom,” she said.

Watch Chris Jennings describe his TFA experience at Frederick Douglass High:

YouTube video

Using their urban agriculture know-how, the former TFAers and their students have expanded the garden beyond the school’s footprint, creating the Mondawmin Urban Garden Space (MUGS). A few blocks from the school, the once-vacant lot now houses raised beds growing flowers, herbs and some veggies.

MUGS is just one more example of passionate teachers and their energetic students working to make their community stronger. Let’s hope the sun keeps shining on these gardens.

Frederick Douglass High School urban garden.
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.