The Hanging Gardens of Alice Fong Yu: “I used to be a plastic bottle”

One of the schoolyards I was most impressed by on the International Green Schoolyards Conference tours was at Alice Fong Yu, America’s first ‘Chinese Immersion’ school.  The building of this garden has been largely funded through the San Francisco ‘bond’ system whereby City voters choose the projects they wish to see taxpayers money spent on – I have to say, I love this concept!

This is a challenging site – very steeply sloping (the Bay Area is famously hilly) and effectively built on sand dunes.  To create a manageable, productive market garden in this environment is quite a feat, and the school community has been extraordinarily successful.  From humble beginnings in 1999, a really impressive co-operative effort by many stakeholders (parents, staff, children, the school district and the design teams, and of course the voters of San Francisco) enabled Alice Fong Yu to develop this attractive and sophisticated tiered garden.

The original garden was partly taken over when the elementary school expanded, but a keen parent used this setback as an opportunity to concentrate her efforts on securing curriculum buy-in for the growing project.  Her plan of promoting the value of gardening within and beyond the school worked – newsletters annual garden parties (which still happen) and a bulletin board in the school all helped raise its profile.  Her detailed and purposeful curriculum plans included descriptions of which ‘standards’ (learning outcomes, in current UK parlance) would be met through active, participative gardening programmes.

Fifteen years later, each class in the elementary school goes to the garden once a week for an outdoor lesson, making use of the growing areas, and the newer, wheelchair accessible outdoor classroom.  Lessons are taught by a part time garden co-ordinator, who was our fabulously helpful guide on the tour of the grounds. This post is funded by the school PTA to the tune of $20,000 a year… a very significant commitment which is repaid with a rich, varied and progressive on- and off-site outdoor learning curriculum.

Other success factors include support from the school Head and regular use by the teaching staff; but it is without doubt the parent group that ensures the sustainability of this curriculum – providing the original start-up funds, fundraising for the co-ordinator’s job and lobbying to use Bond money on the green schoolyard renovation.  Much of the routine maintenance is also carried out by parents, but the work of the children is an important part of the day to day care of this special space.

There are two main spaces within this green schoolyard – the embankment with raised growing beds on and the newer outdoor classroom, with shelter and shade, permanent seating, secure storage and plenty of interpretation.  I loved the examples of children’s work and the witty displays which gave a real sense of the fun and enjoyment to be had in connecting with nature.

In many ways, the vertiginous embankment has actually forced the creation of a surprisingly accessible garden; each raised bed has a tall length and a short length, as it absorbs the gradient, allowing children of different heights to find a comfortable working position. The beds themselves have been built using recycled plastic (yep, they used to be bottles) and scaffold poles – a relatively cheap but very hardwearing combination.  At 15 years old, these beds still look pretty new and are coping well with the demands made on them by a busy, large school.  Bark chips around the bases of the beds form the pathways and the treads of the many steps needed to manage the incline.

The children grow veggies, herbs, soft and tree fruit and flowers.  School had not long been back after the summer hols so the beds were in the early stages of being seeded.  Picnic benches allowed classes to work on their seedlings, record findings or cook their produce.  Whiteboards, interpretation panels and excellent labelling all contribute to a usable, versatile teaching space.

Storage is vital in school grounds – lack of it is one of the key barriers to taking learning outdoors. At Alice Fong Yu, accessible storage has been cleverly integrated across the whole outdoor classroom area, with large, expensive items of equipment stored securely in the new seating area, and items needed more regularly kept up in the garden area.  When the doors to the secure storage are opened, they become full length whiteboards… very clever!

In addition to the growing beds, Alice Fong Yu also has a pond (with solar powered pump), several different composting systems and a native planting area.  Composting is a core element of sustainable development in the Bay Area and every school we visited had impressive and almost industrial scale composting systems in place ranging from wormeries to a series of linked timber boxes big enough to cope with all the school dinner left-overs.   As an aside, everything we ate and drank over the five days of the Conference, and everything we ate or drank it from, was composted as we went along; it’s had the effect of reinvigorating my own attempts to be a more thoughtful consumer back at home.

In strong contrast to the diverse, vibrant growing areas, the remainder of the grounds at Alice Fong Yu are rather disappointingly, barren and exposed.  These are the schoolyards the children spend most time in – recess and lunchbreaks – and the 2010 Proposition A bond funding will enable the school to continue to improve the whole site, in order to benefit its students throughout the school day.  The school district has engaged Bay Tree Design Inc to create a masterplan design to address the learning and play needs of the school, as well as its culture and ethos.  Construction of these social spaces, recreational areas and wildlife habitats will begin in 2012.

My abiding memory will be the enormous fun our tour group had, experimenting with the clever watering system; a faucet at the top of the garden runs into a series of half-drainpipes which irrigate as they take in the slope.  At the end of the pipes, excess water exits into a huge bucket, in which floated several yoghurt cartons, each with holes pierced in the base.  The young gardeners use these to water the beds, the pierced holes helping to regulate the amount of water each specimen ‘enjoys’.

On the way back to our tour bus, I snapped a couple of irresistibly tactile artworks (can’t stop myself testing everything out – still a kinaesthetic learner after all these years) and left with the impression of a really joyful, industrious and skilful school community.  Love Alice Fong Yu!

  • Visit the Alice Fong Yu school via their website: www.afypa.org
  • Many thanks to Bay Tree Design and the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance for the detailed case study material supplied to us at the conference, which has made sharing this fantastic tour a great deal easier!
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