Student Growth at Sundale Ag Center and Trading Post
Aug 20, 2016 11:00AM
By Jordan Venema
With Just a Few Seeds
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Brittany Wilbur
Let’s be real. Very few of us, having finished school, would willingly go back. Then again, most schools don’t have programs like Sundale Union Elementary’s Ag Science, and most classes don’t have teachers like Penny Allen.
“Ag science is a class that I teach, kindergarten through eighth grade,” explains Allen, where students “plant and maintain gardens, and the classroom is full of reptiles and animals. We have some 20 chickens that the kids are in charge of, and we have two big iguanas, an array of reptiles, and chinchillas and guinea pigs.” And that’s just the short list.
Allen didn’t just start teaching the class in 1998; she created it, and it’s become one of those programs that you can measure by the fruits of her labor – yeah, yeah, metaphorical fruit, sure, but also the actual fruit you can eat, ripe from the branches of the trees that she and her students planted in those early years.
It’s hard to imagine the school without those fruit trees, but when the school first approached Allen, she didn’t want the job.
“Oh gosh, no,” she admits. “I wasn’t wanting a job. I was just a homemaker, basically, and I said, ‘No, I’m very happy with what I do at my house.’”
But the board pressed: “Penny, we just want you to make sure kids enjoy the outdoors, and learn how to grow a garden.” Eventually, she thought, “Mmm, I can do that.”
“Our board is a phenomenal thing,” Allen now says. “They let me do what I wanted, and whatever my mind came up with, they would back.” There was the idea for an herb garden. “So we built it,” says Allen. And then the koi pond, “and we built that, too.”
Allen’s students are taught to care for their own gardens, but by degrees the classes became responsible for the landscaping around the entire school.
For Allen, it’s about teaching ownership, and the ability to transform any space.
“It really doesn’t matter where you live, you can make it pretty as you want, just with a few seeds.”
Also, she says, “it gives them a sense of responsibility.” Many of her students are learning self-confidence. She says gardening gives her the opportunity to hear pretty much everything under the sun – her students’ life stories – meaning these “classroom” moments become the kind of opportunity every teacher dreams of: when education isn’t just a means to an end, but a means in itself. Her students aren’t learning some algebraic equation that they’ll use in a vague someday (no offense, math teachers). They’re learning the value of hard work and the value of self-worth.
That’s not to say Allen’s lessons don’t have extremely practical consequences. Some of the veggies and fruits raised by her classes, such as navel oranges and broccoli, are used by the school’s cafeteria.
Allen and students have also opened the Trading Post, which sells gifts and coffee and is open to the public. When Allen had the idea to open the Trading Post, she thought maybe it would be a fruit stand with some little gift items. Now it’s as big as her classroom, and takes up half of the barn-like structure where she holds her classes.
The Trading post has a rustic feel, playing 1940s music in the background. They sell herbs when in season, homemade jams and jellies made by the students, as well as pomegranates, oranges and persimmons. For Mother’s Day, Allen bought antique crates that students filled with succulents they’d grown in their gardens.
They take their coffee seriously, too – blended drinks and espresso, along with smoothies and baked goods. Allen is quick to add there’s no sales tax (because the school is a nonprofit), and all proceeds go back to the Ag Science program.
“We’re open every day from 7:30 in the morning until school’s out at 3:30,” says Allen, adding with a laugh, “the teachers have it made, because they’ll call and have a vanilla latte delivered.”
For Allen, it’s rewarding to see the growth over the last two decades, especially since she almost didn’t take the job. She laughs that her husband sometimes asks her to step back, but for now, “no, I’m not leaving,” Allen says emphatically. There’s still so much to plant, and so much to grow.
13990 Ave. 240, Tulare • (559) 688-7451
Trading Post is open Monday-Friday, 7:30am-3:30pm