At University Place Elementary & Middle School, the garden is a learning landscape for the 3 Rs of leadership: respect, resourcefulness and responsibility.

In 2009, the school implemented “The Leader in Me” leadership program, a school-wide initiative based on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The overall goals are to increase engagement, boost academics and reduce discipline problems.

Many students at University Place qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the cafeteria was just one of many areas where the principal and teachers hoped to see students making better choices.

“The Leader in Me” was a quick success and it soon permeated every corner of the school. In just the first two years, the number of student visits to the office for negative behavior decreased from more than 500 to only 13!

The school garden became a natural extension of this program, providing outdoor opportunities for leadership and character building.

In 2010, the school joined forces with a nonprofit organization, Druid City Garden Project (DCGP). Together they developed a companion garden-based leadership program called “Budding Entrepreneurs,” which teaches gardening skills, fosters leadership and teaches the basics of running a business. Students organize and run seasonal farm stands to sell what they grow to the local community. They even handle money transactions and marketing.

Classroom teachers handpick students with strong leadership qualities to run the farm stands and to take on other specific leadership jobs, such as Water Leader, Compost Leader, Harvest Leader or Washing and Packing Leader.

As part of “The Leader in Me” program, similar leadership jobs exist in all areas of the school, ranging from Photography Leader to Announcements Leader to the kindergarten Shoe Sheriff who teaches peers how to tie their laces.

“The garden is an important piece of the broader, school-wide leadership program,” says Deron Cameron, former school principal, who established and directed the program until 2013 when he was promoted to Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the county school system.

“The children who participate see the food grow from bud to plant, so they no longer think it just appears in supermarkets,” Cameron says. “They try new foods, eat kale, make their own hot pepper sauce and sell the food they grow. All of that together is so powerful. The students learn what it means to be a leader and what it means to synergize.”

“The children who participate see the food grow from bud to plant, so they no longer think it just appears in supermarkets.”

Because of the garden’s success and large size, about half an acre, University Place has become DCGP’s flagship garden and a model that’s being replicated at other schools in Alabama and at the Tuscaloosa Juvenile County Detention Center.

A strong partnership with nearby University of Alabama (UA) has also strengthened the program. UA organic farming students work in the University Place garden to learn about growing methods; engineering and construction students have added permanent structures, including a packing shed and greenhouse; and nutrition students create recipe cards for “Budding Entrepreneurs” to hand out with produce sold at the farm stands.

“If there’s one suggestion I can give to other garden programs, it’s to partner with colleges and universities in your area,” says Lindsay Turner, executive director of DCGP. “They have amazing resources. Right now we’re also working with a UA researcher who is independently analyzing our program. The scientific data has begun to show that the longer a child has been in our program, the more likely they are to eat healthy foods and their overall health improves. We see their preferences and behaviors change. They are less likely to eat candy and drink soda. The kids who have been with us the longest even seem to have a lower trend of BMI. This is evidence that we are accomplishing our goals and setting them up for healthier lifestyles in the future.”