When Madison Simis students returned to a newly built school earlier this year, they not only had new buildings, technology, furniture, and cubbies. They also had a brand-new student garden.
The Discovery is Growing Gardens at Simis (DIGGS) Program was founded by parent volunteer Leslie Schexnayder, a local Master Gardener who attended a youth gardening conference in 1998 and came home inspired.
DIGGS was created to enhance the school’s science curriculum and bring meaningful enrichment activities to the campus. During the summer of 1998 and with the help of friends, parents and teachers, Schexnayder and fellow Master Gardener and volunteer Vicki Maus oversaw the installation of two separate vegetable gardens, wrote teacher manuals with suggested activities, had a wealth of tools donated, and acquired a gardening resource library that dovetails with the district’s science curriculum.
What started out to be two vegetable gardens and 360 third- and fourth-grade students has blossomed into more than 60 planting beds and 1,000 students participating. In 1999, the National Gardening Association awarded the program its “Outstanding School Garden Award” and Schexnayder received “Outstanding Volunteer in a School Garden” from the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension.
With the help of countless parents, grandparents and community members, the program has flourished for over 18 years.
Sadly, Schexnayder lost her battle with cancer on Dec. 18, 2015. To recognize her years of volunteerism and passion, Madison Simis will rename the new DIGGS garden as Leslie’s Garden in a ceremony set for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7. The event is open to the public.
“It is a testament to Leslie’s vision that the program has been sustainable; evolving with changing educational standards and expectations and has expanded into a multi-grade level activity with a variety of gardens that not only provide a hands-on learning environment for the students but also beautify the campus,” said Sue Mulligan, a longtime friend of Leslie’s who wrote the memorial garden proposal that was submitted to the Madison District School Board on Feb. 16 for approval.
This year is the 17th school year of the DIGGS program, which continued to operate despite the school rebuilding construction project. It has contributed to the academic growth and understanding of nearly 1,000 students annually. Today, every classroom at Simis participates in the program, including a first-time kindergarten garden area. The program also now integrates new educational standards and International Baccalaureate (IB) themes with gardening. Mulligan said the program is also one of the most popular on campus among students, parents and teachers.
“The program also engages parents and grandparents in the classroom,” Mulligan said, adding that, annually, nearly 100 people deliver the program at Simis.