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School Garden Coordinator Digs into New Role

By Judy Myers, Extension Educator — Children, Youth & Family Consortium

As the new school garden coordinator for the Bruce Vento Elementary School garden in St. Paul, Kirsten Saylor has an interesting job. It involves integrating the garden into classroom curriculum, promoting healthy eating and access to healthy foods, and identifying collaborative opportunities to create and maintain the garden as an educational space.

Photo: Kirsten Saylor/LinkedIn

School gardens offer students opportunities to discover and explore nature and learn about healthy food sources, opportunities that Extension is uniquely suited to help expand and deepen. With help from Extension Master Gardeners, Bruce Vento students and their teachers have worked to plant vegetables and flowers, spread mulch, remove overgrown bushes, and start a pollinator garden. Nutrition educators from Extension's Health and Nutrition program teach parents and students how to make healthy choices.

And Kirsten? Some of Kirsten’s work with students has provided them chances to explore, raise questions, and develop and test hypotheses. Here are more details of Kirsten’s work to date:
  • Partnered with Bhaskar Upadyhay, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota STEM Education Center, to integrate schoolyard garden learning into classroom curricula and meet school district educational standards.
  • Maintains regular communication with Bruce Vento teachers and staff through a garden newsletter that alerts them to learning opportunities and seasonal topics related to the garden.
  • Purchased grow lights that will allow students to continue growing and harvesting herbs during winter months and met with the school cafeteria supervisor about future nutrition teaching within the cafeteria space.
  • Collaborated with school engineer to place the following structures in the garden: 
    • A “Little Library” to house books on gardening information for use by students, faculty, and the community.
    • A weather station with a thermometer and rain gauge.
    • A log for students to monitor their garden work and observations.
  • Collaborated with the school social worker to host a student Garden Club. To date, club members have planted bulbs by the Bruce Vento school sign and started lettuce seeds.
  • Worked with students to design next year’s garden and with teachers to identify links to spring and fall classroom lessons.
  • Discussed Minnesota’s growing seasons and helped students plant crops for spring harvest.
  • Partnered with pre-K and kindergarten teachers to plant a variety of micro greens this fall, including various lettuce varieties that students can harvest and eat by winter break.
  • Worked with students to “put the summer gardens to bed” this fall and helped them plant hairy vetch and rye grass to improve soil and break weed cycles.
  • Partnered with Bruce Vento’s new Family Liaison, Gretchen Ray-Jensen to build more family engagement opportunities. Gretchen has contacted Family Values for Life to discuss creating nonperishable food packets for students to take home as needed.
  • Contacted Do Good Together about the possibility of helping provide free grab-n-go meal packages once or twice during the school year, provided the school can fund materials and supplies.

Long-Term Goals

Kirsten’s goals for the future include bringing together other school district school garden coordinators and teachers to identify opportunities that align district and school policies, identifying opportunities to develop systems that support development and utilization of gardens, and developing evaluation measures that align with experience.

Kirsten also seeks to build a community of practice to help retain the champions who can fulfill these goals. A community practice has the potential to identify systems and policies needed to increase the odds of the school garden’s success independent of staff and community changes.

Kirsten’s ideas surpass her part-time hours and she is tireless in pursuing opportunities to create school/community gardens that meet multiple educational, nutritional, and food availability goals for schools and communities.


Kirsten’s University of Minnesota appointment is funded through University of Minnesota Extension's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed). Working to define this new position at the school has necessitated meeting with many people, including schoolteachers, staff and administration, St. Paul School District personnel, parents, and various community-based and youth-based organizations in St. Paul. Since school gardens are a fairly recent phenomenon, schools have not created time within the school day or hired dedicated staff to take full advantage of all the benefits that a schoolyard garden provides. 

Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies, Healthy Learners is an ongoing partnership between Extension's Children, Youth & Family Consortium and Bruce Vento Elementary School. Together with many partners, the partnership develops engaging learning environments that promote student learning and wellness.
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