NEW PORT RICHEY — Once they'd finished the FCAT, the students at Athenian Academy ventured outdoors to water and weed and mulch and plant.
The effort has been about three years in the making, and now the garden is flush with maturing tomato and pumpkin plants, red cabbage, potatoes, green peppers and a colorful assortment of blooming cosmos and petunias.
And while greenery is the main focus, the garden has sprouted a different kind of growth in students — some who go there to talk out problems in group counseling sessions, practice yoga poses after school, express their artistic talent by painting murals on the surrounding walls or simply dig in as a member of the school's garden club.
Put simply: "A garden is a free place that you can visit every day," said Anthony Rivera, 14.
The Garden of Respect and Responsibility is a source of pride for math teacher and avid gardener David Caolo. He was three weeks into retirement and realizing that wasn't for him when he took a part-time teaching position at the charter school three years ago. There he saw potential in his students as well as a tiny courtyard that was littered with old cast-offs.
"It was basically a patch of sand, a place for lost and broken toys," said guidance counselor Beverly McKinney.
They started by picking a name, and students such as Kiara Sanchez and McKenzie Saroukos brandished brushes and painted "The Garden of Respect and Responsibility" in English, Spanish and Greek on a bordering wall. Others pitched in, painting murals, planting seeds in the earth and in pots that were brimming with rich compost and dirt. Along the way they learned how nurture tender life and the importance of following directions and working with others.
"It's amazing that a few years ago it was a plain dirt courtyard," McKenzie said. "We really respect each other at this school and the garden is a symbol of that."
There is also a math component, Caolo said, pointing out that classroom lessons are put into practice when measuring out the proper amount of fertilizer, figuring the size of a hole to be dug for new transplants or the volume in an empty plastic water jug that will be turned into a garden terrarium.
After being inspired by a field trip to the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, students are now in the midst of creating their own miniature version of the museum's garden labyrinth and laying out plans for a succulent rendering of Pi in one of the school's table gardens.
"We don't use any chemicals and we grow almost everything from seed," Caolo said, adding that in the beginning there was no garden hose, so students hauled buckets of water from the tap to the garden. "It was a lot of work but the kids love it," he said. "They absolutely love it."
"Whenever we have free time we ask our teachers if we can come out here," McKenzie said as she transplanted a coleus plant into a potted garden sculpture being painted by fourth-grader Katherine Shabunina. "If you're having a hard time you can just come out here and relax."
"I think it's a beautiful place for people to do homework and everything," Kiara said. "And it's good for the environment."
And for teaching youngsters the importance of focus and perhaps, simply staying in the here and now.
"One of our favorite things to do in the garden is a walking meditation," said math teacher Sacha Demby, who instructs after school yoga classes with first grade teacher Yvette Flynn. "The kids like it a lot. They see what they discover when they walk — they can look and count leaves. They see bugs and birds."
Yoga "is a great way to relax when the FCAT is coming or they are getting stressed about their school work or their parents are getting on them about their room or what ever," she said. "We do it all in the garden. We can do it anywhere. But the coolest thing is that we can connect to our physical garden — our secret garden. It all flows together."
McKinney is grateful for the peaceful garden setting. Because of fire marshal codes, she cannot have more than four students in her office. She guides her group counseling sessions in the garden, where students are welcome to talk about changing family situations, grief and loss or work on problem solving skills.
"We're one on one with nature and it's very private," she said. "I love having a place like this to go."