Local real estate firm sponsoring Alice Birney School’s garden program
By Dave Fidlin | SDUN Reporter
Since the school garden’s resurrection nearly a decade ago, Alice Birney Elementary School students have been able to play in the dirt – literally – as part of a hands-on garden program. Fiscal constraints at the state level have put the offering in doubt, but a local firm is lending its financial support.
Tomea Inc. Consulting, an upstart real estate firm with six employees in Bankers Hill, announced a partnership with Alice Birney staff and students earlier this spring. The firm has pledged its resources to ensure the garden program remains in the curriculum at Alice Birney for the foreseeable future.
Began a year ago, community involvement was a cornerstone of Tomea’s philosophy, Director of Operations Melania Mirzakhanian said.
“It’s something that’s important to all of us,” she said. “We began to reach out to local schools in the area and did some research. We liked the garden program at Alice Birney. It’s unique.”
Amanda Hammond-Williams, principal at Alice Birney, said the garden program returned eight years ago after a lengthy hiatus. The resurrection was due in large part to an active PTA group at the time. Students in kindergarten to grade five attend the University Heights magnet school, located at 4345 Campus Ave.
Since its return, the garden program has been incorporated into school curriculum as one of the regular specials alongside art, physical education and Spanish language.
With ongoing funding problems prevalent at the state level, officials within the San Diego Unified School District have faced difficult decisions in recent years. When funding deficits come into play, programs outside core curriculum tend to be first on the chopping block.
As part of its agreement with Alice Birney, Tomea staff have pledged the necessary funds to ensure the garden program will be offered in the winter and spring months for a total of 33 weeks. For the time being, regular school funds will ensure the program is offered in the fall.
While brainstorming potential causes, Mirzakhanian said she and other staffers overwhelmingly favored supporting local education.
“Children shouldn’t be the ones suffering from the budget cuts,” Mirzakhanian said. “They are the innocent ones in all this.”
Hammond-Williams said she sees great value in the program, as evidenced by the enthusiasm exhibited by students.
“The program works from seed to table,” she said, pointing out that students have a role in planting vegetables in the garden, caring for them and harvesting them when the time is appropriate. Once the array of produce is ripe, it is incorporated into the school salad bar at lunchtime.
Although it is considered a special program, the gardening does incorporate a few elements of core curriculum. For example, students learn about measurement and fractions during the planting process.
“Our fourth graders, for example, learn about seed germination, and that requires some calculating,” Hammond-Williams said.
Mirzakhanian said she and other Tomea staffers look forward to digging into the dirt alongside Alice Birney staff and students in the near future.
Mindy Swanson and Mickey McQuerry of Dig Down Deep garden educators work with the students every week in the Alice Birney gardens, and recently held a gardening camp at the school over spring break. Swanson said they were thankful for Tomea’s help, as well as their other supporters, Mission Hills Garden Club and Whole Foods Markets.
The school partnership is the second in what Mirzakhanian envisions a long string of events designed to bring the Uptown community together.
The firm’s debut effort, an art gallery event held inside the company’s offices at 2645 First Ave., took place in February. It featured nine artists and a wine and cheese tasting. Mirzakhanian said there were about 200 attendees.
“We really believe in the idea of bringing everyone together, even if it means being part of something that has nothing to do with real estate,” she said. “What we want to do is redefine real estate and change how it’s been perceived.”