April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Urban Farming Elevates St. Louis Schools | The Maker Issue

Students at the Maplewood Richmond Heights District make applesauce as part of the district’s Seed to Table program.

Students at the Maplewood Richmond Heights District make applesauce as part of the district’s Seed to Table program.

Firsthand experience with farming and gardening may be uncommon for most kids in urban St. Louis, MO. But it is a daily occurrence at the city’s Maplewood Richmond Heights District, comprised of an early childhood center and elementary, middle, and high schools. Here, concepts such as sustainability and nutrition aren’t merely theoretical. Kids learn by doing, whether they’re raising bees, caring for chickens, or growing food that will be served in the food cafeteria.

“We are really ‘district as maker space,’” says high school service learning teacher Patrice Bryan. Hands-on, creation-based learning is at the heart of every aspect of the Maplewood curriculum. A child-directed, Reggio Emilia–style philosophy drives the early childhood center, with an innovative Seed to Table program, in which kids gather eggs from an on-campus chicken coop and learn about farms from a visiting barnyard of animals. Elementary school students design exhibits for local museums.

High schoolers work in Maplewood’s student-run food pantry.

High schoolers work in Maplewood’s student-run food pantry.

By the time these children enter high school, “they are ready to be little creators on a real-world scale,” says Bryan. Their work positively impacts their community as well. Three years ago, high schoolers studying hunger started a food pantry that now serves more than 100 families a week and that is in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3).

It’s a success story in more ways than one. Thirteen years ago, Maplewood was one of the lowest-performing districts in St. Louis. A high poverty system, where 49 percent of students receive free lunch, Maplewood completely transformed itself through a sweeping overhaul.

Though the library was the last piece to fall into place—winning the Follett Innovation Challenge in 2013 garnered Maplewood $60,000 in funds—it now embodies the spirit of the entire campus. Gone is the traditional quiet study space, replaced by a buzzing hive of activity (though quiet areas remain for reading and study). Known as the Research and Design Center, the library encompasses a classroom, study area, and more. It’s where all service-learning programs take place.

Kids pick berries as part of Seed to Table

Kids pick berries as part of Seed to Table.

Circulation has tripled, Bryan says. Meanwhile, visitors wandering in might observe many activities occurring simultaneously: kids studying AP calculus, playing chess, rehearsing for school plays, and taking part in hands-on learning experiments, such as a recent one involving the study of water.

Staying flexible is key to a strong, successful maker space, Bryan says. “The biggest challenge is that everyone wants to use the space. I teach classes in the open classroom space, and the work of the library continues in the background.” However, she adds, “the expectations are clear—respect the space!”

What’s the secret to developing such a dynamic hub? A maker space doesn’t happen in a vacuum, Bryan says. “It really needs to be a reflection of a culture that already exists.” she adds, “If we had sat down five years ago and said, ‘Let’s make a maker space,’ I don’t think it would have been successful. It was an organic change”—one that matched the overall climate of the school.—Mahnaz Dar

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

Maker Workshop
In this two-week online course, you’ll create a maker program that aligns with your budget and community needs, with personal coaching from maker experts—from libraries and beyond—May 23 & June 6, 2018.


  1. Farming is the ultimate in creative living. Glad to see you’re teaching kids about farming. I grew up on a farm and when I was a kid I thought farmers were “dumb”… now… as an adult, I can see that farmers have to be smarter than all those guys in neck ties. They know how to do paperwork but a farmer must know about everything… weather, compost, timing, negotiation, worms, companion planting, fixing tractors, working with nature… and more. Keep up the good work.