At Castlemont High School in East Oakland, wedged between the parking lot and football field, live four chickens and two roosters.
There’s also a small but incredibly abundant garden, which under the supervision of garden coordinator Frankie Grace, is entirely run and maintained by students. On the day I visit, Graces is kneeling alongside them, chatting happily and pulling weeds. She lets three of the seasoned students direct what work needs to be done.
One of the students, Margie, is a junior at Leadership Public High School, a charter school that shares the Castlemont campus. Margie’s been working in the garden since 2010.
“Being in the garden has been really a great, amazing learning experience for me,” she says. “I came from knowing nothing about gardening, to knowing so much that I can run it myself.”
Margie’s not the only one; out of the six students earning money for their work in the garden, three of them have so much experience that they roam the place freely. They spot and remove sick plants and re-plant seedlings that have strayed outside their planter boxes. Most of the space is filled with colorful wooden planter boxes
“In each bed we have different things. Like for example, here we have just plain tomatoes and we have some bell peppers,” says LPS senior Oranjel Pelayo. “And in other beds we have, like, herbs and stuff like that.”
On the other side of the garden, beyond the greenhouse, there are three different kinds of composts – and the coolest composting technique I’ve ever seen, a worm bin. Margie shows it to me.
“So we basically feed them with food scraps like, um, old food peels and vegetables and rotten fruits, and then, um, they eat the rotten fruits and then they would poop,” Margie explains with a laugh.
The garden’s only been around for a few years – it was founded in 2009 by biology teacher Sarah Johnson and a handful of students. Margie joined Johnson’s project in the garden’s second year.
Margie and Oranjel say it was Johnson who inspired their passion for gardening in the first place. Sarah Johnson left Oakland last year, and Margie and Orajel are the only students left who worked with her. The future of the garden is up to them: these students have a real sense of ownership and pride for their work, and the garden exists now only through their efforts. But Margie and Orajel won’t be around much longer, eventually they’ll graduate and other students will have to take up the mantle.
“We plan this year to actually help recruit more people, to work in here, and to actually get them motivated to work in the garden. Which is like how I did, or any other of us,” says Oranjel.
They’ve already made some progress. I meet Simi, a new recruit.
“I think I already know what to do, just waiting for somebody to show me,” Simi says.
It’s a start – and a promising one at that.
Logan Birdsall is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.