Organic garden helps kids learn about growing food

Teacher says it combats 'nature deficit disorder.'

By Claire Osborn
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Monday, June 26, 2006

The four 3-year-olds chased one another through a clump of flowers grown taller than their heads, then stood, out of breath, next to some garden plots.

Jude Gravois broke off a sprig of chocolate mint and offered it to Phoenix Lucus. "It tastes good," Jude said.

For these children, the gardens on this acre in South Austin are their schoolyard.

Ronda's Montessori Garden is run by Ronda Dizney, who has filled the land behind her house off South First Street with 30 garden plots, chickens in a bamboo teepee, rabbits in hutches, a compost pile, and swings and benches where children can sit and observe nature.

Dizney, 58, looks like a benign character out of a children's book.

She walks around in garden clogs, speaks in a soft voice and has chin-length red hair spiked with white streaks.

A Montessori teacher for 30 years, the divorced mother of two grown sons opened her own school in 1994 to combat what she calls "nature deficit disorder."

"Some parents are afraid to let their kids go outside," she said, and in her view, too many children spend too much time indoors playing video games and watching television. The children grow basil, cucumbers, peppers, pumpkins, lemon grass, garlic, chives and spearmint, and they pluck insects off the plants by hand.

The children search for strawberries and carefully line up one another's garden boots on a bench at the end of the day.

The school is certified by the U.S. branch of the Association Montessori Internationale.

Mia Pem, the mother of one of Dizney's students, said that if she put her son, Lalo Rothgeb-Pem, in any other preschool, he would spend too much time indoors.

"He gets a lot of natural satisfaction just from seeing the life cycle of things and feeding Ronda's chickens," she said.

Dizney has the only certified organic garden at a Montessori school in the state, said Allen Spelce, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Certification requires a three-year history of not using pesticides or fertilizers.

Dizney said she got the idea "from God" when she started digging in the backyard with one of her first students.

"It takes a garden to grow a child," she said.

Children at her school learn that food doesn't just come from grocery stores and that they can feed themselves by growing their own produce, she said.

She has hung Tibetan prayer flags in the backyard, and a mirror hangs on a barricade at the end of the dead-end road next to her house.

She said the tiny mirror reflects the "bad energy" back to drivers who get angry about having to turn around when the road ends.

Her students take home the food they grow from their own gardens as well as the eggs from Dizney's 13 chickens.

They can also watch the chickens graze inside a rolling wire enclosure Dizney built; they call it the "chicken tractor."

The children also spend time inside Dizney's house, where she sits on the floor with them and teaches them letters from the alphabet and things about nature such as how to rescue frogs from mud holes.

"People say I'm hiding out, but I'm in the best of company," she said, grinning at the 3-year-olds around her.

Photos by Kelley West
Austin American Statesmen


Each day, children at Ronda's Montessori Garden track down strawberries like the one Phoenix Lucus displays. Ronda Dizney says kids spend too much time indoors.

'It takes a garden to grow a child,' said Ronda Dizney, left, who runs a Montessori school where each child is taught how to tend his or her own organic garden plot. Phoenix Lucus, 3, helps her with a patch of soil on Wednesday behind her South Austin home.

At the end of each day, students line up their gardening boots. But this day's just beginning, and 3-year-olds Jude Gravois, left, and Phoenix Lucus gear up to learn about nature.

Day by day, kids see the fruits (and vegatables) of their labors in the organic garden. Ronda Dizney points out the beginnings of a cumcumber on the vine.

Each child at Ronda's Montessori Garden has a garden to tend, with a photo of the student on the edge. This is Phoenix Lucus' garden.

Part 2

Organic gardening school has had safety violations

Owner said she is working with the state to correct hazards.

By Claire Osborn AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Tuesday, June 27, 2006

An organic gardening Montessori school featured on the front page of Monday's Austin American-Statesman has had several violations of state child care standards, according to inspections by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Violations include children being left outside briefly unsupervised by a day care employee, a ladder with protruding nails, and children not washing their hands after using the restroom.

When writing features or other profiles about people and places, the American-Statesman as a practice does background checks. In this case, the newspaper was told last week by a Family and Protective Services official that the facility did not have any violations. The agency Monday confirmed that the school did have violations. These violations were not reported to the paper because of a research error, agency spokesman Chris Van Deusen said.

"It's rare that we don't find some deficiency in the standards when we go to a child care home or center," Van Deusen said.

Van Deusen said Ronda Dizney's child care home has not been put on probation, which is done for more serious charges and would include more frequent monitoring.

Most of the violations cited in the reports from the Department of Family and Protective Services have been corrected, according to the reports. Details from an inspection done this month were not available.

Dizney, who runs Ronda's Montessori Garden in her South Austin home, said she would work with the state to fix anything that was wrong.

"I want the children safe and healthy as much as the state does," she said.

In 2003, Dizney failed to provide an immunization review, and her violations in 2004 included not having current first aid training, according to the records. No violations were noted in 2005.

An inspector in April 2006 detailed 10 violations, including seeing Dizney go inside her house twice, leaving three children outside, a report said. One of the children stepped into a wading pool filled with 6 to 8 inches of water while Dizney was inside, the report said. Dizney said Monday that the children were not alone because a parent was in the backyard. "I've been in business for 12 years, and nobody has ever been hurt," she said.

cosborn@statesman.com; 445-3871

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