This profile of an outstanding, innovative educator is part of the feature section “On the Leading Edge” in our annual Innovation Issue. Photos by Scott Buschman.
When Emalyn Leppard walks by, students sometimes toss their junk food into the trash cans. When she sees that, the teacher knows she is making a difference.
Leppard founded the Comprehensive Health and Wellness Program at Montgomery Middle School in 2015 to help students and families make healthy choices. Aside from encouraging a healthier lifestyle, the program fosters a strong sense of community through fun activities and a shared purpose.
“Studies show that today’s young people are the first generation whose members are dying from preventable diseases including heart problems, arterial sclerosis and diabetes,” says Leppard, a San Diego Education Association member. “Studies show they may even have shorter lives than their parents. I’m doing whatever I can do to change that. I want my students to have a different mindset and understand they are what they eat.”
The school’s garden, which she has overseen since 2005, is the crown jewel of the program. Students grow herbs, fruits and vegetables that are served in the cafeteria as part of the Garden to Café program in San Diego Unified School District.
Last year’s grant from CTA’s Institute for Teaching has taken the garden to a higher level at Montgomery, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) magnet school where Leppard is Garden Health and Wellness coordinator.
The school’s home economics room, which had fallen into disrepair, is now spruced up and used by eighth-graders she dubs the “Power Rangers,” who cook healthy meals using food from the garden. Before the cooking classes started, she applied to Lowe’s for a grant, and the home improvement giant donated three ovens, a dishwasher and a refrigerator.
Leppard organizes monthly “family dinners” with live cooking demonstrations that include garden foods accompanied by lively discussions about native foods and culture. Recently a Vietnamese family demonstrated how to make spring rolls, and attendees found them delicious.
“It’s a way for our school community to share history, culture and a meal together,” says Leppard, a STEAM resource teacher and 2010 San Diego Unified Middle School Teacher of the Year. “People can share a piece of themselves that wouldn’t happen in an ordinary classroom. It has strengthened school and community relations and is fostering a positive, forward-looking culture of healthy living on and off campus.”
One teacher uses the garden for science lessons to study such things as photosynthesis, composting and soil testing. A math teacher has students use the garden to calculate space for crops and measure how much fertilizer or water to add.
Recently an aquaponics component was added to the garden, teaching students how to raise tilapia. While there has been much talk of making fish tacos, the students became attached to the fish as pets. So for now, they are off-limits for eating.
Because stress relief plays an important role in overall wellness, students created a Zen garden in a corner of the garden.
“This is a place where students can relax and be at home with their thoughts,” says student Ventura Arreola. “Plus, it’s a nice place to hang out.”
The focus on wellness and gardening has changed the school culture, observes Leppard. “More people are paying attention and asking how they can get involved. We’re sharing more, and we’ve become closer. I love the cultural shift.”