When Bryna Bass, rooftop garden program manager, walks into the newly renovated Rothenberg Preparatory Academy each day, she says she feels blessed. It’s a space of community, a space of pride and ultimately a space of beauty.
Bass serves as program manager for the Over-the-Rhine school’s rooftop garden — a project that launched in 2008 and was completed this past summer, thanks to the vision of and support from the Over-the-Rhine Foundation
and funding from other generous individuals and organizations.
The garden sits atop the fourth floor of the more-than-100-year-old building and is home to potted plants, raised beds and a vast array of vegetables — tomatoes, carrots, strawberries, greens, radishes and beets to name a few — that were planted and harvested by the nearly 450 Rothenberg students.
A Dream Job
For Bass, it’s a dream job.
“Every morning, I come into the school — and any garden’s beautiful — but I’ll go upstairs, walk on the roof and I’m just like, ‘Good morning! Hello! Hi!’ And the birds are flying by, you hear planes, you hear traffic, but there’s still this beauty,” Bass says. “I get to work and spend my day here.”
And the way it all happened is rather serendipitous.
Bass grew up in the suburbs outside of Cincinnati and says she feels fortunate because her mother was a gardener.
“We always had a yard, always had gardens, and we grew a lot of our own vegetables,” she says. “I grew up very blessed and lucky. I was surrounded by trees, and it was something I was always interested in.”
The science of gardening has always fascinated Bass, and when it came time to go to college she was going to study the natural sciences — perhaps become a park ranger, she says — but instead crossed paths with individuals in horticulture, started learning about plants and loved it. So in the 1980s she graduated from Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture.
Bass returned to Cincinnati in 2000, taught middle school science and did a two-year stint as an AmeriCorps Vista member at East Price Hill’s Imago
, where she says she “got connected to the environmental education piece.” She returned to teaching and got 17-plus years under her belt, then transitioned into the role of service learning coordinator at Covington-based nonprofit Children, Inc
“My job there brought me back into the Cincinnati elementary schools working with teachers and students to support service learning initiatives in the community,” Bass says, "so I got to know CPS (Cincinnati Public Schools) and had five different schools — I still am service learning coordinator — and Rothenberg was one of them."
At the time, Rothenberg students studied on at Vine Street Elementary while planners debated whether or not to renovate the original school.
Across the street from the then-desolate building, however, Bass found life. She was a volunteer and board member at Permaganic Co
“They have a youth internship program, and I got very involved because it was a way to still work with youth, and my background is in horticulture and agriculture, so being there was a hoot,” Bass says. “I got to work with youth, work with the community, I got to farm, I got to garden and I thought, ‘Oh, this is great,’ because I loved that place. I still do.”
While serving at Permaganic, Bass eventually learned that Rothenberg would in fact be renovated, and when it was there would be a roof-top garden that would require a program manager.
“Angela Ebner, one of the directors at Permaganic, told me, so I contacted Pope Coleman (Over-the-Rhine Foundation board member
), sent him a resume,” Bass says. “We started talking, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, this would be perfect,’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do.'
"It was like everything coming together. This is my dream job, because I love the OTR community, I love being at Rothenberg, I get to garden and work with kids, so it’s perfect. Gardening, teaching, the community organizing background — it all led here.”
In the four short months the garden has been accessible to Rothenberg students, much has been accomplished. Fifth graders, for example, did a lesson on measuring volume of soil in the beds prior to planting.
“So they were putting math skills to use and doing volume measurement in the garden,” Bass says.
When planting seeds, students learned about life cycles, and as time's gone by they’ve had the chance to cook harvested produce to learn about healthy eating habits.
“Some foods have been featured on the school salad bar, which has been nice,” Bass says. “And we just did a carrot root beet stir fry two weeks ago, and that was a hit.”
The garden hasn’t been utilized for a long enough period of time yet to confirm any measurable outcomes or statistics, but both students and teachers recognize its value.
“Being able to plant things, care for them and watch them grow is a source of pride and ownership,” says Shirley Easley, who teaches third grade English and language arts. “The health and wellness component, too, exposes the children to different things — ways of life, types of foods. That has a big impact on them by providing opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have.”
There are also cross-curricular connections.
“We might be reading a story in the classroom, and the children will make a connection to something they did or learned about in the garden,” Easley says. “While reading the book The Ugly Vegetable
, we started listing different kinds of vegetables. One child said ‘kohlrabi’. I didn't know what kohlrabi was and questioned him about it. He said they planted it in the garden. He was right.”
In Pacific Standard’s
article “Green Surroundings Linked to Higher Student Test Scores,”
studies indicate that with greater “exposure to greenness” a group of Massachusetts third graders performed at a higher level in both English and math. So there's certainly promise that the cross-curricular application and hands-on learning opportunities are benefiting students in a multitude of ways.
Rothenberg students are lucky to also be one of just two schools in the state to participate in 4-H Agri-Science in the City
, which is offered through Ohio State University Extension and focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education. Students alternate on a weekly basis, splitting time between garden activities and 4-H activities, which include everything from incubating eggs and hatching chickens to molding bread and killing bacteria.
“STEM education provides an opportunity for the students to draw connections across the curriculum and integrate learning into all facets of their life while trying to solve difficult issues,” says Tony Staubauch, 4-H program officer at Rothenberg.
The garden and 4-H programs, though separate, share connections, and Staubach says it’s a common goal to make sure students understand just how important agriculture is to their existence.
“In an urban area it is easy to forget that food doesn't just ‘come from the grocery store’ but is grown, processed and often processed again before it's put on the shelves and purchased,” he says. “I want these students to understand that they are already a part of the agriculture system and that they can continue to take on a larger role. They can be advocates for their own health; they can be advocates for their own community needs.”
A Community at Work
Individuals at Rothenberg understand what it means to be a community, and there’s a strong sense of pride among students, parents, neighbors and school officials.
Students have already talked about a service learning initiative, which Bass envisions as “a giving garden,” where students might grow food they could then offer to local families in need. And the rooftop garden, for example, is backed by “The Garden Guild” — former educators, volunteers and members of the community who have taken an interest in the garden and all that it can offer.
“Having CPS, the OTR Foundation, the Garden Guild, Children’s Inc. is a nice model to see how programs and nonprofits can sort of evolve with the help of a lot of different input,” Bass says.
The school also houses a parent center, comprised of about 20 regular volunteers, who give their time to support other parents, assist teachers with classroom needs, do laundry for students and form bonds “that nothing can break,” says Dorothy Darden, who volunteers on a full-time basis.
“My kids went to school here and I volunteered, but my kids are grown, went to college and are out,” Darden says. “But I’m still here, so I always tell people I have 446 kids.”
Darden also serves as a member of The Garden Guild because she says she appreciates the value the garden holds not only for the students but also for the parents, who are welcome to use the garden to grow food for their families.
“We had some parents come in and they were scared to go to the roof,” Darden says. "One was afraid of worms, but she was able to work and she took a picture. We learn until we take our last breath, so it’s just important to know that you might be this one way in this stage but you can re-route yourself and do things different.
“That’s what I like about being here. I’m really in my niche 'cause I like what I do. I really love what I do with the kids, the parents — that connection is really important for me. It’s not about big dollar signs. It’s about connection.”