Staff Photo: John Bohn Sydney Pruehs, age 9, a 4th grade student at Pharr Elementary School in Snellville, waters the school garden Tuesday. Pharr Elementary is going green by collecting rainwater to water a vegetable and wild flower garden. A rainwater collection unit on the roof of the school stores water in a 600 gallon container, visible at right, is connected to a solar powered water pump which delivers water to the garden.
Principal Jerry Raymond wants kids at his school to go beyond books and blackboards, pencils and paper.
He'd like them to step outside, breathe the fresh air and plunge their hands into the dirt.
While classroom studies remain the standard at Pharr Elementary School in Snellville, kindergarteners through fifth-graders now have the chance to learn lessons from mother nature as well.
Over the summer, Raymond hired a landscape contractor to install raised vegetable beds and a rainwater recovery system beside the school's cafeteria, with funding from the school's parent-teacher association.
"We came up with the idea of a community garden that students would maintain," Raymond said.
The principal went to the Gwinnett County Public Schools maintenance department for permission. Officials approved the measure and told Raymond his school would be the first in the district with such a system.
"In years past, we've always wanted to get the kids involved in the actual hands-on experience of growing, and our landscaper had some really great ideas," he said.
Landscaper Zach Burrell found a design that "worked perfect" for a community garden.
Burrell installed a 650-gallon tank near the garden. Rainfall is collected on the cafeteria roof and drains into the container.
With two decent rainfalls the tank fills up, Burrell said. The only downside, he added, was that water collected through the system lacked pressure.
Burrell used a solar pump to solve the problem. The pump is connected to a drip irrigation hose that runs through the vegetable beds. A second hose splits from the pump, allowing hand watering as well.
Students this year will have the opportunity to water as well as harvest fresh produce from the community garden
Fifth-grader Colby Freeman likes the idea.
"I like that you get to grow stuff on your own, and you don't have to go to the store to buy it all the time," Freeman said.
The young man is no newcomer to the concept of water recovery. He has a 45-gallon barrel at home that collects rain. He grows tomatoes, okra, cantaloupe and basil.
Fellow student Sydney Pruehs, 9, said she looks forward to "doing something that helps us learn and is also good for the environment."
As the seasons change in coming weeks, students like Freeman and Pruehs will plant vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, lettuce and turnips.
A handful of tomato and pepper plants are currently thriving in the vegetable beds. Raymond said students have been watching with excitement as the produce ripens.
As the garden expands and yields more vegetables, Raymond said much of the harvest will be donated to the Southeast Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry, a local organization that provides emergency financial aid and food to those in need.
"We for years have had a great relationship with them," Raymond said, adding that the school hosts food drives as well as charity dinners every year.
"This garden's really got some potential for helping not just the students, but people around the community," he said.
"The idea is that the kids will eventually take it over," he said. "It's teaching them how to grow vegetables, but it's also teaching them about responsibility and helping out those in need."