From Classroom to Garden: Environmental Literacy and School Gardens in Val Verde Unified School District

Time and again, school gardens have proven to offer an abundance of benefits for students. Schools in the Val Verde Unified School District (VVUSD) have taken action in recent years to ensure their students have access to experiential learning in the garden with a focus on topics that go beyond nutrition and food systems and include a range of core subject areas including science, math, art, and other academic disciplines.

Doug Henderson, director of STEAM at VVUSD, says, “Kids love school gardens. They’re growing their food, and they get the benefit of seeing their food eaten in the cafeteria.” Through his work to implement school gardens throughout his school district, Doug has seen how school gardens provide educational benefits and help students connect with systems of nature by engaging senses that are not typically used in a classroom setting.

Meeting Challenges Through Partnerships

While they provide many benefits, school gardens can present challenges for teachers and staff who are already strapped for time, funding, or know-how; additionally, school gardens require consistent maintenance and integration with educational processes. When Doug joined VVUSD in 2006, he found those issues an inspiring challenge and began building the infrastructure for school gardens and outdoor education programs to grow and thrive in his district. When he began his tenure as director, Doug learned that only four of the twenty-two schools in the district had gardens—and they each had varying levels of development, access, and integration with student learning. Following the advice and encouragement of VVUSD teachers that are garden advocates, Doug set out to create a unified and equity-based approach for schools to implement garden programs throughout the district.

Using the CAELI Partner Portal, Doug researched how leaders in environmental education were implementing similar projects across the state.

That same year, the City of Perris, California, created the Grow Perris Initiative to improve and expand health equity through urban farming and platforms to promote healthy behaviors city-wide. Through Grow Perris, VVUSD partnered with the City of Perris to secure a USDA Farm-to-School Planning Grant. The City of Perris and the school district collaborated to create a Framework and Action plan to support students and teachers in cultivating and harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables for their school cafeterias.

With funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, Western Municipal Water District, and LCAP (Local Control and Accountability Plan), Doug was able to lead the effort to modernize the gardens and meet with school principals to negotiate an environmental literacy program that will also produce food to be sold to district cafeterias at market value. VVUSD’s gardens received much-needed equipment updates with city and district-wide support, including watering timers and new beds. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit soon after, the district received extra funds to install outdoor learning spaces.

Integrating School Gardens with Classroom Curriculum

To begin designing a curriculum to integrate VVUSD’s gardens into the school curriculum, Doug connected with the nearby UC Riversides’ Master Gardeners program. Master Gardener volunteers are trained to provide the gardeners of Riverside County with research-based information to promote environmentally responsible and sustainable horticultural practices. With the Master Gardeners program leading the creation of an NGSS-aligned garden curriculum, VVUSD’s gardens have become integral to student learning.

Having taught high school science for nineteen years, Doug wanted to merge the gardens with classroom instruction without overburdening teachers with more to-dos. “We wanted to make sure that adding a garden as a tool to teach environmental literacy didn’t feel like something that was being dumped onto teachers’ plates,” Doug says. His approach to connect VVUSD’s garden to a STEAM curriculum meant centering the work in solution-based thinking. “My view of STEAM has narrowed down to two words: “problem-solving.” Gardens can be a tool for solving problems.” With a curriculum in place, teachers and students are able to use the garden as an outdoor lab environment that is fully integrated with other classroom educational experiences.


VVUSD now has twenty-two gardens, more than 100 hydroponic towers for indoor growing, a vineyard, and a $2.5-million agriculture complex at Citrus Hill High School, which includes a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse for all of the large-scale aquaponics systems. These gardens and hydroponic towers have helped improve student health, engagement, and achievement in the classroom while fostering a greater appreciation for the natural world and a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of living systems.

By providing students with hands-on learning opportunities and an appreciation for the value of locally grown fresh produce, VVUSD’s garden programs have become a model for other school districts to follow. Moving forward, Doug plans to develop a more streamlined process for schools to implement gardens, creating a turnkey system to enable more schools to bring the benefits of gardening programs to their students.

Learn more about Doug’s project and how he deployed gardens as a tool for environmental education by checking out our past District Innovation Hub Webinar Series for archived recordings and slides. You can also register for upcoming webinars as we showcase the work of equity-focused leaders in environmental literacy and school sustainability.