New Jersey’s Garden Academy Enhances School Curriculum With Environmental Stewardship

Sustainable gardens are a key part of Just Energy’s commitment to investing in the environment while adding value and beauty to communities. Since launching the Sustainable Gardens initiative in December 2016, the Just Energy Foundation has completed 11 outdoor learning spaces for underserved schools across the US.

The goal: Leverage the merits of outdoor learning for students’ development and help schools offer stimulating environments to transform the quality of learning experiences—all made possible by $10,000 grants.

Recent grant recipient, Garden Academy in West Orange, NJ, is successfully integrating these hands-on learning spaces into their sustainable living curriculums. Six months after the sustainable school garden was completed, Garden Academy has shared the impact and progress Just Energy’s support has made possible.

“This sustainable garden is just that, as long as we continue to maintain it, it will continue to create opportunities for our students to use it, and many are still to be seen.” – Laura Bielskie, Garden Academy Development Coordinator

More Possibilities for Garden Academy Students

The sustainable garden has provided a surplus of new and exciting curriculum opportunities for Garden Academy students, aged between 3 and 21 years, who have been diagnosed with autism. Life skills such as planting, watering, picking vegetables, food preparation, and clean up are now taught using real life examples and trials.

For example, there is a team of students who rotate watering the garden, and several others are learning to prepare food from the vegetables that the garden produces this spring. In addition, several classrooms include the Sustainable Garden in their STEM curriculum and actually conduct science lessons in the sustainable garden space. The development of these skills leads to greater independence amongst Garden Academy’s students and encourages environmental stewardship.

Vocational Training and Community Outreach

Garden Academy staff have begun planning a community initiative so that students can interact and partner with local companies. In April, they hosted a group of community volunteers from Novartis, a local corporation, to help plant their summer harvest alongside Garden Academy students. The first seeds of their vegetable garden included tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and lettuce. They’re also welcoming a local university to work with students in the garden in late May. All of these partnerships provide a wonderful opportunity to introduce community members to the outdoor learning space, Garden Academy students, and the mission of the school

Long-term projects will be implemented as well. Over the next two years, Garden Academy will plan to harvest vegetables to be sold in their own small farmer’s market initiative that can be brought into the greater community. This initiative will be maintained and operated by the students and provide valuable vocational training, as well as promoting autism education and awareness throughout the community.

“To have one space that is age appropriate for all of our students, where they can come together to learn, play and enjoy each other’s company is absolutely our favorite aspect of this project!” – Laura Bielskie, Garden Academy Development Coordinator

 From an educational perspective, the importance of a thriving sustainable garden cannot be underestimated for Garden Academy. The outdoor learning area allows for students to sit outside and learn in a novel space that is unlike a typical classroom setting. And perhaps best of all, the beauty and impact of the sustainable garden is that caring for it can be incorporated into the curriculum of every student, despite the varying ages and skill sets.

About Just Energy Foundation:

The Just Energy Foundation was established in 2013 by Just Energy Group Inc. to help registered Canadian and U.S. charitable organizations secure the resources required to promote the health and well-being of communities in need. Funded entirely by Just Energy, the Foundation invests in local programs that work to enhance the quality of life in Just Energy’s operating markets toward building stronger and supportive communities. Visit justenergyfoundation.comto learn more.