Fifteen years ago, Jo Sanders retired after many years as a high school math teacher. Sanders had always been interested in growing plants and especially vegetables. Shortly after her retirement and moving to The Commons in Huffman, she enrolled in the Harris County Master Gardener program. At about that time, Debbie Krenek, the lead science teacher at Oak Forest Elementary (OFE) in Atascocita, had a vision that an outdoor classroom or garden might help to give her students hands-on learning experiences they would not get inside the building. Sanders was recruited as a volunteer to help start the gardening program at the school.
Over the years, the program has grown to be one of the finest school gardening programs in the Houston area. At first the gardens were funded by parents and community members. ExxonMobil stepped in later to help with the funding. More recently, the volunteers began offering preserves from the summer gardens for a donation to help defray expenses. In 2011, the volunteers formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization to raise funds and administer the program, which is now called the OFE Growers.
One of the highlights for each student at OFE is their chance to work in the gardens when they are fifth graders. Each student is able to spend about 30 minutes, twice a month, in the gardens and another hour per month studying and learning about plants and other science and math applications in the gardens and nature areas at the school. While the students think they are having fun growing fruit and vegetables, they actually are learning math and science by doing. A typical math application might be: How many carrots can we grow in a bed that is 8-feet x 4-feet if the carrots are planted 2 inches apart? OFE students grew over 3,000 pounds of produce last school year.
No garden is complete without a shed to store tools and supplies. Ken Sanders, Jo’s late husband, was instrumental in designing and building the OFE Little Red Shed as well as many other structures around the campus and gardens. One of the structures was an outdoor classroom with six benches and a teacher’s podium which for several years was situated at the corner of FM 1960 and Kings Parkway.
Recently, this classroom was moved to the south side of the building in a walled area under a large oak tree. Volunteers reinstalled the benches and podium, sanded them and refinished them. At this new location away from the traffic noise at the corner, teachers are already using the classroom on nice days.
On Nov. 16, Krenek, other garden volunteers, and her students dedicated the new classroom to Jo Sanders and her late husband, Ken. A plaque was placed on the wall next to the entry to the classroom proclaiming this the “Jo and Ken Sanders, Outdoor Classroom.”
You can read more about and see pictures of the students in action at ofegrowers.org.