First graders Elsa Skarsten and Abigail Emerson work together to water seeds with Heather Sperling’s class at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane
First graders Elsa Skarsten and Abigail Emerson work together to water seeds with Heather Sperling's class at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane on Monday morning. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

NEWFANE -- On Wednesday morning, Heather Sperling's classroom was a series of raised garden beds outside NewBrook Elementary School.

"This is exciting that we're getting this work done," Sperling remarked as eight members of her first-grade class chattered, knelt, dug and planted.

The crops they're tending are spinach and radishes, chosen mainly because they'll be ready before the school year ends. But Sperling is hoping NewBrook's Farm to School program also is planting seeds that will allow her students to live healthier lives.

"This is really making them connect with how to be healthy and how to make healthy choices," she said. "If they don't know where their food is coming from and how food grows and how to make a healthy meal, then they're not going to be able to make those choices as easily."

For her efforts at NewBrook, Sperling recently was named Farm to School teacher of the year by Food Connects, a regional, Brattleboro-based organization dedicated to "healthy farm and food connections" in classrooms, cafeterias and communities.

In a statement issued with the announcement of Sperling's honor, NewBrook Principal Chris Pratt said administrators are "very proud of her, and I personally feel that they could not have picked a better person to give the award to."

However, Farm to School supporters also emphasized that the NewBrook's initiative is a team effort that includes administrators such as Pratt and Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Steven John; NewBrook staff; students; and community members. The latter group, Sperling said, is vitally important to the program's success.

"We'd really like to reach out to the community and have them be more of a part of what's going on here, and vice-versa," she said.

Sperling has been working on food issues for years, both as a NewBrook teacher and as a former employee of Brattleboro Food Co-op, where she handled education and outreach.

"I think I really started focusing on this while I was working at the Brattleboro Food Co-op," Sperling said. "I learned a lot about food and nutrition and gardening, and I was able to visit all of the area schools and all different grade levels. I was really focused on that work. So when I came back into the classroom a couple of years ago, it was just kind of a natural flow to keep that going because I have that experience."

NewBrook already had a Farm to School program at that time, including a garden that was created in 2010. But the program is growing, with many developments happening in less than a year's time.

For instance, the school's team last summer participated in VT FEED's three-day Farm to School Institute at Shelburne Farms. That helped lay groundwork for NewBrook's first Harvest Celebration and Art Show in the fall.

First grade teacher Heather Sperling helps (L-R) Riley Taylor, Abigail Emerson and Sophia Duroucher while planting vegetable seeds with the class at
First grade teacher Heather Sperling helps (L-R) Riley Taylor, Abigail Emerson and Sophia Duroucher while planting vegetable seeds with the class at NewBrook Elementary School in Newfane on Wednesday morning. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

That event included student art work, local musicians and a variety of soups including a Gilfeather turnip soup crafted by NewBrook's second-graders. The event helped to raise money for a bread and pizza oven that could enhance NewBrook's Farm to School efforts.

Supporters also are looking to add a greenhouse to the NewBrook property in Newfane, just off Route 30. That could serve several purposes, including allowing students and staff to grow food for the school's cafeteria.

"And having extra space in the greenhouse for an outdoor classroom -- you can really do a lot of work with kids in there over three seasons, and maybe four if we have it heated," Sperling said. "It's just expanding that time for them to be doing the sort of projects that are really meaningful to them and can help them develop healthy and happy lives."

To coordinate those improvements, NewBrook is getting help from Windham Regional Career Center, which is developing a master plan for the school grounds. If all goes well, the oven could arrive later this year.

"We'll also have a plan and, hopefully, the site work done for the greenhouse," Sperling said. "It could be, depending on how quickly everything moves, that we construct the greenhouse by next winter, also. We have most of the funding in place for that."

NewBrook also has enhanced its Farm to School program by implementing a "Vermont Harvest of the Month" event. Each classroom takes a turn preparing a taste test, Sperling said.

"That really makes it a whole school effort," she said.

NewBrook's Farm to School focus includes after-school programs, as well. Overall, Sperling says it's a learning experience that can be fun -- hence her students' obvious enthusiasm while working in the garden -- while also connecting with kids in a new, unique way.

"They're using their senses," she said. "It's reaching the students who learn in different ways, because there are so many senses that you're incorporating when you're doing this sort of work. It gets them excited."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.