Growing knowledge at Altimira
Dutch Van Herwynen heads the garden to horticulture classes at Altimira.
When you grow food and flowers in the garden, you grow, too. When you teach students to grow gardens, you grow ten-fold. That is what Dutch Van Herwynen is experiencing at the Altimira Middle School garden. He is finishing up his second year teaching horticulture and he’s never been happier.
“Sometimes I’m out here in the garden and I think to myself, ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this,’” he said.
Mr. Van, as the kids call him, has been teaching science at Altimira for more than 20 years, and he still teaches science twice a day. But now he also teaches two horticulture classes and something else new this year – drama. “It’s my first year teaching it and I love it,” Van Herwynen said. He just put on the first ever musical at the school, “The Big Bad Musical,” with tremendous help from the students and the music teacher.
“I just think we should have drama,” he said, so last year he asked if he could teach it and he got the go ahead.
Both the garden and putting on a play require many after school and weekend hours, but when you enjoy your work, as Van Herwynen clearly does, that’s not a problem. “I’m very, very busy, but it is a good busy. I lot of my life is about my job,” he said. “My wife is the same way. We’re doing this together.” His wife is an eighth-grade teacher in Santa Rosa and their son is finishing up eighth grade. “Right now our house is pretty much all about middle school.”
Van Herwynen majored in horticulture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “The mantra there is ‘Learn by doing,’” he said, and that is the concept he is sharing with his students. “A lot of kids like being outside and doing something with their hands. It’s place to experience success.”
He wants the kids to come out with a good basic knowledge of how things grow. “To plant something and water it and watch it grow is really rewarding,” he said. The garden is roughly a half-acre, with raised planting beds and two large greenhouses where the students grow flowers, produce and tend fruit trees. They have roses, marigolds, sweet peas, kale, lettuce, beets, carrots, potatoes, cilantro, apple trees, olive trees – the list goes on. The students learn to propagate new plants using hydroponics, graft fruit trees, fight gophers and weeds and recognize “the right plant for the right place.” They also learn carrots pulled straight from the ground are mighty tasty.
Van Herwynen stands in the garden wearing jeans, an Altimira sweatshirt and a sun-shielding canvas hat, completely at home in his “classroom.” “I get accolades for doing this but it is really a community thing,” he said, citing help from Kathleen Hill’s School Garden Project and the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, and praising John McReynolds of Stone Edge Farms and Connie Gustafsson at Scandia Landscaping. “So many people have supported this.”
He went on to say, “It gives the kids a greater sense of pride in their school. More buy in. And I like the tie in it can have to career pathways. We aren’t going to need less food!” He is thrilled when the students tell him they have put gardens in at home, or a tomato plant on the back deck.
When Van Herwynen started out at Altimira he never envisioned still being there 20 years down the road. When more than 20 years had passed, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stick around for 30. “The past two or three years my career has taken a really good turn on a personal satisfaction level and in being in touch with the kids,” he said. He has always enjoyed the school, but with the current administration, the garden, the drama, well, life is good and Altimira has never been better. Van Herwynen feels like he’s reinvented himself, that he’s “figured out how to stay relevant.” He says some of it was luck that horticulture came along, but, “I have never felt more competent or at ease teaching anything.”
And lucky for the students at Altimira, 30 years is now looking like an invigorating, rewarding and great idea.