Amanda Cleary was more than happy to help out in the school garden when she joined the teaching staff at P 37, a District 75 school on Staten Island, in 2019. Soon after, when the teacher who served as the school’s sustainability coordinator decided to retire, she passed the torch to Cleary. It was a natural fit.
“I’ve always been interested in gardening and recycling and making the earth happy,” Cleary says.
Buoyed by a grant she applied for in her new position, Cleary launched a garden club during the 2020-21 school year. P 37 teachers can sign up their classes to participate in the club, and each class takes ownership of a garden box. They plant and water vegetables, sunflowers and other flowers throughout the year.
“The kids feel proud because they know which garden box is theirs,” Cleary says, “and it teaches them a sense of responsibility because no one wants to have the box with dead flowers.”
Her goal for the 2021-22 school year was to make the garden more accessible to students with special needs. Thanks to another grant, she was able to install paved walkways. Students in the adaptive design program at P 37’s high school site built wheelchair-accessible garden beds. Teachers drilled holes in milk jugs to create “adaptive watering cans” that were easier to handle and pour than regular cans.
“I was blown away by how far we were able to stretch a dollar,” Cleary says.
Cleary knows what it’s like to be a Staten Island public school student — she was one herself. After attending IS 24 and New Dorp HS, she studied psychology at the College of Staten Island. During an internship with a school psychologist at a school for students with special needs, she discovered a love of working with children.
“It ended up being my passion,” she says.
She began her career working with preschool children with autism.
“I didn’t ever expect to want to work with older kids,” she says. “The smaller accomplishments for the little guys are so big. But now I teach 5th and 6th grade, and that feeling is just as empowering.”
Cleary says adapting and differentiating curriculum for her students requires “patience and a little ingenuity,” particularly when the work spans two grade levels. Fifth-grade students may be working on shapes and geometry in math, while 6th-graders are telling time. Other students’ IEP goals may focus on different mathematical concepts altogether.
Heading up the garden club has helped Cleary connect with staff and students at P 37. Classes can use the garden space for outdoor reading, picnics and sensory experiences like digging in bins of soil and sand.
“Teachers love it because it’s a one-stop shop,” she says.
In the spring of 2022, Cleary combined a recycling drive with a plant sale to raise funds for the garden. Students planted and sold seedlings in teacups and mugs donated by members of the school community.
Cleary dreams of “bringing the garden indoors” for students in the winter, perhaps through hydroponics or an indoor sensory garden. In the meantime, she’s grateful to have found her place at P 37.
“People look at District 75 and think, ‘I could never do that,’ but these children have so much potential,” she says. “I work in an amazing school with amazing kids, and they’re so proud of themselves when they accomplish something by learning and growing together.”