When work began last month on the Tucker Elementary courtyard garden beds in the Beecher district, Carol and Dave Groat were leading the way. The courtyard garden will eventually become home to both flowers and vegetables. But it won’t be students’ first exposure to raising plants.

For the past three years, the Groats have been helping teacher Shelly Roberts with her Tucker grow lab, where students raise plants year ‘round. In Roberts’ kindergarten class, children grew herbs to take home for Christmas, and planted cuttings donated by Davison Greenhouse to grow houseplants for Mother’s Day.

The Groats, who co-chair the Grow Lab division of the Genesee County Master Gardener Program, oversee 26 grow labs in 18 Flint-area elementary schools. Last year, Carol and Dave together logged 1,200 volunteer hours.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it,” said Carol, who says it gives her a chance to use her degree in education. Carol has worked with schools the past eight years; she brought Dave on board after he retired from General Motors. Dave, who grew up on a farm and has an engineering degree, often takes care of mechanical issues with the grow labs.

Carol teaches four to five lessons in each classroom every year, based on curriculum requirements. That might range from teaching about desert or rainforest plants for classes studying land forms, to teaching which plants American settlers brought with them, to planting peanuts while learning about George Washington Carver.

Although Carol grew up a “city girl” without gardening experience, she took classes to become a Master Gardener through the Michigan State University Extension program.  In the grow labs, Master Gardeners rely heavily on the help of other volunteers, known as “shepherds,” who check plants between visits. Roberts, a Master Gardener who acts as a shepherd for the grow lab in her class, started working with the Groats while teaching at Dailey Elementary.

Because children are fascinated with grow labs and motivated to take care of their own plants, Carol said she rarely encounters discipline problems. When students run into her outside of school, they excitedly point her out as the “plant lady,” she said.

The plant lessons apply not only to curriculum, but to students’ lives. Similar to a seedling growing toward the light, Carol tells young students, “Look for things that help you grow, eat right, get outside, keep your mind healthy, work hard. You’re all very capable of being successful.”

Dr. Don Hammond found a creative way to get around budget cuts hitting schools statewide:  The Beecher High School teacher started writing grants.

Hammond’s class was awarded $2,250 by Discovering Place for supplies and equipment to be used along a nature trail students built near the school.

Funds were also used to visit Flint’s Stockton Center – where students relocated seven types of plants – as well as for soil and brick pavers used along part of the trail. Students have already fed birds along the trail this winter. This spring they look forward to identifying plant and animal life in the outdoor classroom they have created.

“I think it makes us more environmentally conscious,” said Tyiesha, a Beecher High School junior who was involved with the project. “We’ll be attracting more wildlife and see more variety of species. Some people don’t get to see a lot of (wildlife).”

Students were instrumental in steering the project. They chose plants, mapped out planting locations and last fall began clearing out an invasive plant species to preserve a pond on the property, work that seemed to inspire the community, said Kevionte, a senior at the school.

“The Dailey Elementary kids come over and see how hard we work, and they want to help too,” he said. “We do a lot for our community and the community loves us back.”

The students are grateful for the effort Hammond has invested in the project. Some even see him as a “second father.” The project not only grabbed their attention, but has helped students bond as a class.

Hammond said place-based education creates this kind of rigor because it makes schoolwork more relevant to students.

Teaching along the trail has become a positive symbol for the district.

“I believe other schools look at Beecher as a violent community,” said Dantairous, a sophomore at the school. “But if they see what we do, it might influence more students to come to Beecher.”

Staff, students and the Beecher community will officially celebrate  the opening of the trail during a kickoff event, 2:30 p.m. April 21 at Beecher High School, 6255 Neff Road in Mt. Morris.

The event will feature food and fun; brochures will be available in the high school office to aid in identifying wildlife species along the trail.