Turning around the second-lowest performing school in the state to one of the top performing schools in Baltimore may sound like an impossible task, but the Living Classrooms Foundation has done that with Johnston Square Elementary School . A major part of that success is the Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students or BUGS program.
The BUGS program is now working to replicate that success at another city school, Commodore John Rodgers Elementary and Middle School .
It's a school in an area with a poverty rate that is double the city average and more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. On state assessments, it was one of the poorest performing schools in the state. In just a few years in partnership with the Living Classrooms Foundation, CJR students are making great strides.
Out at Larriland Farm in Howard County for the day, students are hand-picking produce that they will use to make a dish. Through BUGS, fifth-grader Christopher Spriggs has learned how to grow and use fresh ingredients.
"You can really taste the taste, instead of when you buy it from the market, you can't really taste it," he said. "It's different."
"Our students grow produce themselves and prepare it with a cooking teacher," said Jason Reed, a BUGS educator. "They sell it at a local farmers market and then they take the profits from the farmers market and put it towards taking themselves on field trips like this one."
Back at the Living Classrooms Foundation's Harbor East campus, the students are using the cherries they picked to make a crumble. It may start with food, but then goes far beyond.
"I like BUGS because we get to cook, we get to dance, we get to do science and we get to make art," said Malachi Scott, a 5th grader.
The afterschool and summer program for 2nd through 5th graders focuses on five areas: gardening, cooking, art, dance and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Program Director Algernon Campbell said exposing the students to a wide range of activities gives them a broader sense of the world.
"Their minds change, the way they see the world changes and that's important," Campbell said.
Their grades, test scores and behavior changes as well.
"Incredible results," Reed said. "The fact they are aware of their surroundings, the fact that they get to, explore an aspect of life that you don't often get to explore in an urban environment, makes a huge difference."
When BUGS moved to Commodore John Rodgers in 2010, only 46 percent of students scored at the proficient or advanced level on the Maryland School Assessments (MSA) in reading and just 43 percent did so in math. After just three years partnering with BUGS, 89 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on their MSAs in reading and math.
"Kids just need to have attention and they want to know that they are valued and afterschool programs and any sports activities, that gives them an opportunity to feel valued," Campbell said.
The foundation's motto is learning by doing. After a shift selling bugs produce at a farmers market, Spriggs, for one, is already becoming a shrewd businessman. When asked his strategy for getting people to buy things, he responded, "Speaking nicely, giving them discounts and deals."
Participating in BUGS is free of charge to students, but they and their parents do need to apply. It's just one of the dozens of programs the Living Classrooms Foundation offers in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. They include health and wellness programs, community development and job training programs.