At Center for Academic Achievement, vision for an urban farm — and community learning lab — is becoming reality

Jay Senter - May 15, 2018 11:50 am
Chef Bob Brassard envisions the 1.6 acre plot behind the Center for Academic Achievement becoming a hub for education and community engagement.

It’s not much to look at now. But ask Bob Brassard about the plans for the dusty lot behind the Shawnee Mission School District’s Center for Academic Achievement, and you get a vision for the future of food — and science — education for area students and the community at large.

Over there? That’s where the fruit tree orchards will go in.

A few dozen feet away, where tons of compost have just been worked into the soil? That will be the garden plot that produces the vegetables students will use in dishes served at the Broadmoor Bistro.

Next to that? A greenhouse and outdoor production area where students can sprout seeds for planting in the 1.6 acre garden and then clean and prepare them after harvest.

“The seed itself is the educator,” Brassard said. “They take the seed, they sprout the seed, they see how it grows.”

After construction on the Center for Academic Achievement wrapped last year, Brassard and district leaders began moving forward on the creation of a substantial urban farm operation on the center’s grounds. Yesterday, the district submitted preliminary plans for its greenhouse and outdoor education structures to the Overland Park Planning Commission for approval:

Brassard said it will likely be a year or so before those structures become a reality, and that the timeline will likely be dictated by how much financial support for the operation the program can generate from partners.

But the district’s culinary arts program has had a good deal of success on that front in recent years. Missouri Organics donated the 300 cubic yards of compost needed to turn the dry soil from the construction site into fertile grounds for a garden. Cultivate KC has helped the district produce seedlings for planting this year. And a grand from the Hudson Foundation allowed the program to purchase a tractor that makes tilling and maintenance of the grounds possible.

“Without the support of all these partner organizations, this wouldn’t be possible,” Brassard said.

And while the expansive garden operation will be integral to the district’s award-winning culinary arts programs, it will become a learning destination for thousands of other students as well. Elementary classes will be able to visit the center to see how the urban farm works and to plant their own seeds. Science students may be enlisted to do analyses of the soil, or to see how to maximize the effectiveness of irrigation on the plot using water from the main building’s roof stored in a cistern.

“It’s going to be a kind of incubator lab where student will be able to come out and do real science,” Broussard said.

While Shawnee Mission students will be the most-frequent users of the urban farm spaces, the hope is that the community at large will get to experience it frequently as well. Brassard envisions community classes that teach people recipes for using garden vegetables like eggplants and kohlrabi, or how to properly trim fruit trees.

“The whole point of this space is community partnerships for education,” Brassard said. “You give people an opportunity to really see where their food comes from, and create their own food memories.”

Of course, maintaining an urban farm requires labor — and the program’s leaders are hoping Shawnee Mission families will help contribute.

“We’ll be offering work sessions over the summer months for people who want to volunteer to help with weeding or harvesting,” he said. “You know, bring the kids. It’s a chance to get out and see how a farm works.”

Anyone interested in volunteering on the plots this summer should email Brassard here.

Shawnee Mission culinary students inoculate oak logs with shiitake mushroom plugs. The mushrooms grown at the Center for Academic Achievement will be used in dishes at the Broadmoor Bistro.

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