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Imago Dei Middle School


Imago Dei Middle SchoolImago Dei Middle School in Arizona is changing lives through gardening, one student at a time. Serving up to 80 youth from low-income families in Tuscon each year, Enrichment and Farm to School Coordinator Frank DiPietrapaul explains that the mission of the school is to “break the cycles of poverty through quality education and community-building.”  With help from 2020 Budding Botanist and Gro More Grassroots Grants, they are working to expand school garden programming as a means of broadening their students’ worlds by installing a new aquaponics system.

Considering their urban location, the Imago Dei Middle School has a tradition of utilizing container gardens to grow arid-adapted crops in their limited space. Produce has been used in weekly 5th and 6th grade garden classes, a Culinary Arts elective, and a 7th and 8th grade Innovation Program that focuses on entrepreneurship, marketing, and ethical business practices through partnerships with a number of local organizations, including the Mercado San Augustin Farmers Market.

With their new grant funds, the school has installed an aquaponic system that will better educate students on the myriad of ways to grow food in a challenging urban, desert environment. With the help of 5th and 6th grade students, DiPietrapaul was able to engage students in assembling part of the system before the school closed due to COVID-19. “Luckily, the students were able to help get it set-up before schools shut down, but now that we are all stuck at home, the kids are able to follow along with the system’s progress on Google Classroom and weekly Zoom garden class,” DiPietrapaul says, noting that in the future “we’ll be using the aquaponics system to teach our kids about natural cycles, data-collection techniques and alternative, water-wise methods of growing food in the desert, among other important topics.”

While students currently aren’t able to do hands-on projects with the new aquaponics system at school, DiPietrapaul is figuring out creative ways to get activities to his students. “We are working on plans for miniature aquaponics systems that can be cared for by the kids at home, allowing them to follow along with the big system from home. We’re also working on butterfly-rearing kits as a tool to learn about our native pollinators. This gives them the chance to keep the hands-on learning alive and thriving.”

Imago Dei Middle School
Seed saving kits

In addition to these larger projects, students have been engaging in a variety of smaller garden-themed activities while at home such as tending to a digital garden plot and seed starting. “We’ve sent each student bags of seed heads from mustard plants so they can pull the pods apart and separate the seeds into little pouches for next year's fall planting. This teaches seed-saving techniques and the importance of sustainable agriculture. While it’s not the same as seed saving right from the garden, we’ve done our best to keep the experience authentic.”

Beyond the educational component for their Farm to School programming, the Imago Dei Middle School also runs an on-site food pantry for families in need. The pantry receives donations from local partner organizations but some food comes directly from the school’s gardens and their plot at the nearby Las Milpitas Farm. During the COVID-19 related school closure, Frank and his team are offering curbside pickup of prefilled boxes of food which have included kale, carrots, radishes, turnips, and cilantro all from the school. “Even when quarantine measures relax, many low-income families will remain in need of food and other necessities so we’re doing everything we can to see to that” DiPeitrapaul observes. “While we are forced to stay apart physically during these troubling times, our community stands together in spirit.”

A model program in many ways, KidsGardening and our generous sponsors Klorane Botanical Foundation and Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation are so proud to be able to provide support to the amazing garden program at Imago Dei Middle School.