Guest Opinion | Eileen White Read | A Better Future for the Muir Ranch School Garden

Published : Wednesday, April 18, 2018 | 5:40 AM

Much of the once-educational Muir Ranch garden program is gone.

Much of the once-educational Muir Ranch garden program is gone.

Among the essential tools I learned at Columbia University’s journalism school, and sharply honed during my time as a Wall Street Journal reporter, were the preeminent importance of seeking facts, striving for accuracy, and searching for truth. Thus, it’s pained me — as a donor to and fundraiser for Pasadena’s public school gardens — to read the misleading social media coming out of John Muir High School’s Muir Ranch educational garden.

The biggest lie on social media is that Muir Ranch is closing, and folks have been encouraged to send their dollars and write to politicians to #savemuirranch. Horsefeathers! Or as we might say in the world of gardening, this is the stuff of composted manure.

Matthew "Mud" Baron, a paid consultant to Muir Ranch, telling Master Gardener trainees yet that the John Muir High School garden was closing. Mr. Baron has taught no classes at Muir Ranch in the past two years, according to PUSD officials.

Matthew "Mud" Baron, a paid consultant to Muir Ranch, telling Master Gardener trainees yet that the John Muir High School garden was closing. Baron has taught no classes at Muir Ranch in the past two years, according to PUSD officials.

PUSD’s Superintendent Brian McDonald has wisely transferred leadership of this garden – which he describes as “largely uncultivated but ripe for reimagining” – from an outside consultant paid with private-donor funds to two PUSD entities: (1) the award-winning Department of Health Programs (HPD), which won the California School Boards Association’s Golden Bell Award as well as a $100,000 federal grant, a department that already runs at least a dozen other Pasadena public school gardens; and (2) to the dynamic and ambitious new Muir High School principal.

Full disclosure here: I’m associated with a foundation that underwrites Pasadena public school gardens as well as a $42,000-per-year manager’s salary to run them, and I started asking questions about Muir Ranch because this foundation is being asked for a grant. Initiating due diligence – asking both PUSD and the Pasadena Educational Foundation (which raises private funds for Muir’s garden) for annual reports, statistics such as numbers of students served, and educational outcomes associated with Muir Ranch – I began to realize that this garden’s social media is full of fake news.

Noting the recent inaccurate newspaper articles blindly accepting the false story that Muir Ranch is closing, I think it’s time for Muir supporters and lovers of school gardens to join me in a bit of fact checking:

Nobody seems to know what educational activity goes on at Muir Ranch. The garden’s Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are replete with posts reportedly showing “students” making “flower crowns” and wedding arrangements. How are such activities – assuming the photos actually depicted current Muir students – remotely related to a 21st Century education, particularly the science and environmental education that supporters think is going on at Muir Ranch? When Muir’s new principal and Class-of-1993 alumnus, Lawton Gray, arrived last year and began digging-in to the garden, he discovered there hasn’t been an academic nor a vocational-training class for students at Muir Ranch for the past two years. “I couldn’t find anything educational going on there, nothing,” Principal Gray told me.

Muir Ranch's activities include receiving "donations" of plants and seeds that are then given away to community and school gardens all over Southern California. What aren't being served are the students at John Muir High School and the larger PUSD school community, according to Muir HS Principal Lawton Gray.

Muir Ranch isn’t contributing to PUSD’s much-heralded self-sown student dining program. PUSD’s HPD, under Ann Rector, harvests approximately 10,000 pounds of produce from its school gardens per year to be served in school cafeterias. Offerings range from fresh fruits like kiwi and citrus, to squash and pumpkin puree’. Muir’s garden, despite its enormous multi-acre size, contributes no food to this student dining program, according to Ms. Rector.

Nobody seems to know what’s happened to Muir’s community supported agriculture program, or CSA, which used to supply edible produce to weekly and monthly subscription customers. As recently as five years ago, it was reported that the CSA had 100 customers, whose dollars helped fund educational programming and professional staff. Neither PUSD nor PEF could tell me any information about what’s happened to the former CSA.

Nobody is working as an after-school paid helper in the garden. Between the 2011 and 2015 school years, 30 students altogether (an average of six per year) held part-time, $10-per-hour jobs helping with the garden’s maintenance, according to Patrick Conyers of the PEF. Currently, no students are employed in this garden, Mr. Conyers told me.

Education spending at Muir Ranch is opaque. While Consultant Matthew “Mud” Baron has been paid approximately $25,000 per year from donor funds to lead Muir Ranch, the monthly expenses for the garden’s “activities” haven’t been overseen by anyone connected to education. According to Mr. Conyers of the PEF, Muir Ranch expenses have traditionally been submitted to his organization by PUSD’s coordinator of facilities and grounds. This rankles Muir’s Principal Gray, who says, “Everything about this garden, including how money is spent, is wholly unconnected to John Muir High School. The only thing connecting the ranch to JMHS is the name.”

The future of Muir High’s garden could be, on the other hand, coming up roses. Muir will be hosting Pasadena City College classes – including environmental science – next year, and the garden is a natural tool. There’s also the possibility of garden synergies with Muir’s culinary arts academy, and its Generation Green Environmental Club, which is sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service. Here’s what Principal Gray emphasized in a presentation last month to a class of adults training to be Master Gardeners, held at Muir’s library (video attached):

When $25,000-per-year consultant Matthew "Mud" Baron was fired by PUSD and told to vacate Muir Ranch by June 30, he initiated a campaign on Muir Ranch's own Facebook account (which Mr. Baron controls without any PUSD oversight,) inaccurately claiming that PUSD was closing down Muir Ranch.

When $25,000-per-year consultant Matthew "Mud" Baron was fired by PUSD and told to vacate Muir Ranch by June 30, he initiated a campaign on Muir Ranch's own Facebook account (which Baron controls without any PUSD oversight,) inaccurately claiming that PUSD was closing down Muir Ranch.

“My vision and goal is that we [use our] brand new magnet [school] grant for John Muir High School, and we want to incorporate the garden into our environmental science courses, and into our culinary science courses. So the garden is not going away. I am the leader of this school, so I should have some say in this place. It might be different [than in the past.] However, the garden is going nowhere. It is staying at John Muir High School.”

This entire situation is a good lesson for Pasadenans – a small, local lesson – in the fallacies of believing what you see and read on social media. Fictional journalists used to be fond of saying to their sources: “Give me the real dirt.” In the case of John Muir and its educational garden, it’s time to dig in.

 

 

Eileen White Read is President & CEO Emeritus of Pasadena Community Gardens Conservancy, a fund of the Pasadena Community Foundation that awards grants to build school gardens for Pasadena’s most underserved children and families and underwrites the annual salary of PUSD’s Master Gardener/Gardens Manager, Jill McArthur.

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