Students Learn to Care for Plants, Themselves at South Side Urban Farm

For students at Windy City Youth Harvest Farm in Washington Park, eating the crops they grow is at once the best and worst part of their jobs.

“Feels good to eat what you grow,” said Nakira Bolhar, 15.

But “it’s challenging to eat new things if you haven’t tried it before,” said Conesha Hardmon, Bolhar’s 16-year-old fellow crewmember.

Healthy eating is just one of many challenges at the farm, located on the South Side, where high school students spend four days each week in the summer. They plant, water, build trellises and harvest their own vegetable crops, from rainbow chard to cucumbers. The crops, grown organically—another challenge, as students must pick bugs from the plants each day—are sold to community members. They are then used as ingredients for the students’ lunches, which, along with breakfast, are provided daily by the farm staff.

The Washington Park site is one of four farms around Chicago, altogether employing between 80 and 90 students each year. Each student receives a stipend.

But there is much more to the program than just farming.

The staff also lead weekly workshops, using Social Emotional Learning (SEL) principles and lessons created by The Food Project, a Boston-area urban farm project. SEL aims to help  youth and adults to manage and understand their emotions, achieve positive goals, practice empathy and responsible decision-making and foster healthy relationships, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization committed to further developing SEL principles and practices.

“It’s really incredible to see some of the kids just really sort of open up, just during the course of being on the farm,” said Lily Baker, Washington Park site coordinator.

Workshops cover a variety of topics, often farm-based, including communication skills, marketing and learning about the different stages of plant growth. Students put these skills into practice as they work in crews, small groups of students led by a student crew leader that work on farm tasks together. Every Wednesday from July through October, they sell their produce at their own farmer’s market at the site.

“We first thought it was going to be tough, and how people have all attitudes, but it actually turned out really nice,” Hardmon said. “It’s like everybody’s motivated to do everything together…we gotta engage ourselves more.”

“We give the crew leaders the tasks and they are responsible for delegating to their crew members and making sure that it gets done,” Baker said. “In that way, it’s really the four of them… They run a farm. And for all of the students to have that direction and that role model from somebody who is their age. One of our crew leaders is only 16 and she has a bunch of kids in her crew who is older than she is and they all have told me that she is fantastic, and she is. You know, they all are.”

Baker said it’s “a powerful thing” for students to be able “to take charge of something,” and to be able to show how much they know about growing food as they learn more throughout the program.

“We always do our best to have students teaching students, and have their input matter on the farm and students will come to me with ideas,” Baker said, recalling when one student presented her with a plan to get their strawberries to grow larger. “And I had to explain to him, that’s not exactly how strawberries work, but at the same time that’s fantastic. To be thinking, like making those connections, coming to me and presenting an idea that’s like, ‘I think I can do this for the farm and I want to try’…to see them take ownership and have pride in that is one of the best things.”

SEL is gaining momentum. In 2004, the Illinois State Board of Education became the first state board to adopt comprehensive Social Emotional Learning Standards, which have since been implemented in at least 84 schools throughout the state as part of a three-year pilot program. From 2007 until 2011, SEL impacted more than 68,000 Illinois students, according to the Illinois Childrens’ Mental Health Partnership. The pilot program only reached a fraction of Illinois’ schools and students, meaning the state—and Chicago—have a long way to go before they can see SEL’s full impact.

Research has shown that SEL programming can lead to better academic and behavioral performance. A 2011 meta-study of 213 SEL programs found that students in the programs had “increased pro-social behaviors, reduced conduct and internalizing problems, and improved academic performance on achievement tests and grades,” according to a report on SEL in Illinois by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at University of Illinois.

The farm uses a standards chart to keep track of students’ progress in their SEL training. Baker said staff and crew leaders take notes throughout the week to use for feedback. Each Friday they also use Straight Talk, created by The Food Project, during which staff and crew leaders give one-on-one feedback to crewmembers on what they did well and what they need to improve on in the coming week.

“I’m not normally too good getting along with people. I learned how to try and get along with people even though you have to work with them, you have to put all that to the side,” said Makaylah Thompson about the farm’s workshops. “It gets you ready for the real world, for a real job.”

Thompson, a rising sophomore at Dunbar High School, hopes to go into medicine after graduating and attending college.

Research has also shown SEL is most effective when it’s consistent: implemented throughout a child’s education, both during and after the school day. But for many students, this is not yet a reality. For Hardmon, the options are limited to “drama, basically”—not formal SEL programming, but good for working on communication skills nonetheless.

SEL will continue to play a pivotal role in Chicago education, following the adoption of a new discipline code in June that focuses on intervention and restorative practices more than zero-tolerance punishments.

For now, many students will have to rely on outside organizations, like the youth farm, and their families to develop the interpersonal skills they need to be successful in high school and after graduation.

But they can also rely on each other. Oluwatimilehin Ajayi, 18, said the crews have learned to work together, even with crews from other farms.

“It’s like everybody, like motivated to do everything together,” Hardmon said.

“You just have to grow closer with each other,” Ajayi added.

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