Atchison school makes dream greenhouse a reality

From left, Todd Miller, biology teacher at Maur Hill – Mount Academy in Atchison, checks on the progress of plants in the school’s new greenhouse with students Christian Glielmi and Blake Mispagel. Miller and his botany class started everything from seed in order to avoid diseases from outside bacteria.

by Erin Hunninghake
Special to The Leaven

ATCHISON — What started out as an “in your wildest dreams” idea, has now grown into a real tool for hands-on-learning and community outreach at Maur Hill – Mount Academy here.

Thanks to an inspirational seminar two years ago, the idea for an on-campus greenhouse was planted in the mind of MH-MA biology teacher Todd Miller. With the guidance and support of the Mount St. Scholastica Sisters and the MH-MA administration, Miller and his students got to work.

MH-MA’s greenhouse is named after internationally renowned Kenyan environmental political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. Maathai was a 1964 graduate of Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), and the name was suggested by the Sisters of the Mount participating in the project.

Turning the greenhouse into a reality was not an easy task, but one that Miller and his class were ready to run down at full speed. The students wrote grant proposals, made presentations and planned fundraisers.

They received the majority of their funding from Cargill in the form of a $40,000 grant, as well as $20,000 from individuals in the Atchison community and $25,000 from MH-MA.

“Everything fell together nicely,” said Miller. “The timing was right and there was just so much support.”

By the middle of October, the students were finally getting their hands dirty in their very own greenhouse — the only one in Atchison County.

“We were excited to get started and just really hit the ground running,” said Miller.

The Wangari Maathai Greenhouse sits on MH-MA’s property in the empty lot below the main administration building. As people drive up to campus from K-7, the impressive structure immediately catches the eye.

The inside, however, is even more impressive, with plants reaching as tall as the ceiling and rows of vegetables stretching from one side to the other.

“We had an idea of what we wanted to plant right away,” said Miller. “We decided on cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers — they’re the easiest to grow and what people like the best.”

Miller and his botany class started everything from seed in order to avoid diseases from outside bacteria. Once the vegetables were planted, they moved on to ornamentals, planting almost 400 pots.

They also added 40 hanging baskets, which they hope to use for future flower sales.

“The kids are getting a lot of experience,” Miller said. “They went from knowing nothing to now being able to really apply their knowledge.”

The current botany class is made up of eight students, twice the size of last year’s class.

Miller said the botany class has been introducing students to a whole new world, opening them up to subjects they might not have been exposed to before.

“Some of them have really shown an interest and might even pursue something in this area,” he said.

The class has also opened an avenue for learning self-discipline, problem solving, communication and research skills. Future plans will allow the students to try their hand at the business end of botany.

Once spring rolls around, Miller is hoping to open the doors of the Wangari Maathai Greenhouse to sell flowers and vegetables on Saturdays.

“This will be a great opportunity for students to manage money, to budget, learn about cost analysis and break evens,” Miller said.

Adding to the educational benefit is the community outreach aspect. Miller and his students are looking forward to the day that they have enough produce to make their first donation to a local food bank.

“We have a lot of opportunities to collaborate with the community, so we’re excited about getting more involved through donations and fundraising events,” he said.

One of those fundraising events will be the school’s second annual walkathon on April 1. The walk will begin on MH-MA’s campus, travel through Jackson Park and Riverview Drive and end up back on MH-MA’s campus. More details on the event will be announced closer to the date.

After a successful first year, Miller continues to be optimistic about the future of the Wangari Maathai Greenhouse.

“There continues to be a lot of support from our (MH-MA) community, as well as Atchison,” he said. “There’s wonderful opportunities to grow, but right now, we’re where we should be.”

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