On May eighth 2014 at the Tappan Middle School Media Center thirteen supporters of the Tappan Middle School Garden met to discuss the future of the hoophouse that sits above the baseball diamond and soccer field behind the school, just off Stadium Blvd. The hoophouse has been a fixture of the vibrant school garden at Tappan since it was built by volunteers and students with a grant from the Ann Arbor Farm and Garden in 2006. The hoophouse was constructed to serve as a classroom and to operate much like a school media center with a primary steward to work with teachers to maximize learning. This was how Jane Rossi, recently retired Tappan Media Specialist, described the concept of the hoophouse classroom.
The idealists like Ms. Rossi who hatched the idea for The Agrarian Adventure believed most state educational objectives including life sciences, math, language arts, and social studies could be met using garden linked lessons, (say, for instance calculating area using a hoophouse garden bed). While an outdoor garden could suffice for this purpose, (and does at a number of schools) Rossi and other Agrarian Adventure members believed that outdoor food, health, and agriculture could be integrated more fully, and thus with greater impact, if lessons could be taught throughout the school year, even in the dark cold winter.
In its early years the hoop house did provide a warm dry spot for teachers to bring students as late as December. A harvest dinner celebrated the garden and hoophouse bounty each fall. For a while the Agrarian Adventure supported a part-time teacher liaison with donations and a few grants, but sustaining the energy and community involvement has been tough. The changes in Michigan’s public school funding have forced the district and to tighten the school day schedule, increase teacher work load, and course offerings. Although happily, seventh grade life sciences, geometry and a few other classes continue to use the hoop house and garden in the spring, most teachers have little time to integrate outdoor learning experiences in the tight, outcomes-driven curriculum.
The role of the schoolyard garden and particularly the hoophouse in the middle school curriculum at Tappan has lessened. Moreover, because of less funding for The Agrarian Adventure programming, activity has decreased in the hoophouse, leaving it more vulnerable. Then, in recent years vandals repeatedly ripped and tagged the hoophouse plastic cover. It was an eyesore that seemed to draw trouble.
Despite all this, students stream to the garden to help rake and plant at the mid day Advisory period run by the PTSO and there is an upwelling of interest in the After School Food and Garden Club this spring, funded in part by a grant from the Green Thumb Challenge. Nevertheless, in February it seemed time for The Agrarian Adventure board of directors to reconsider or “re-envision” the hoophouse, and with input from the Tappan PTSO Garden Committee, they began a round of planning, beginning with a stakeholder meeting.
At the May meeting five alternatives were laid out on posters, and participants, including school principal Jazz Parks, former Tappan parents, TAA founder and MSU Organic Farming Outreach Specialist, Jeremy Moghtader, and current TAA Board member, farmer and former teacher, Deb Lentz (Tantre Farm) placed stickie notes with handwritten questions and opinions on the posters.
The most comments showed up on the poster for keeping the hoophouse in place. But this option would require a partnership can be forged with an organization or business in the next six months. A few comments expressed doubts a partnership would work to protect the hoophouse from vandals unless investments in security were made. Could TAA even find such a partner, and how long would the partnership last?
Moving the hoophouse to another school garden evoked support as well. But several shared their concerns that the new school would need to address the same issues that have arisen at Tappan, i.e., funding, school priorities, and security.
Discussions underscored the unique value of the hoophouse, but recognized that it is at present an underutilized district resource. Maybe increasing awareness of the structure as a shared resource could safeguard its place at an AAPS school. The Agrarian Adventure will explore these two ideas for sustaining the hoophouse in the next few months. For now, the hoophouse stands uncovered, looking expectant. Our hope is that community conversations will lead to good developments.
If you are a grower, consider a partnering with The Agrarian Adventure and AAPS, and please get in touch. If your school might be interested in exploring adopting a hoop house, we would be happy to talk to you about our experience and help you think about next steps.