Jen Finnegan walks through one of many garden areas at Hollin Meadows Elementary.
The school’s outdoor education coordinator, who students and teachers alike call “Farmer Finnegan,” checks on peas, tomatoes and strawberry plants as she walks. She stops and crouches to check the first green leaves of a new potato plant poking through the soil.
“This is my favorite time of the year, when stuff just starts to poke out,” Finnegan said. “There’s always a moment of doubt when you have 25 first-graders throwing seeds in the ground.”
Finnegan manages the more than 14,000 square feet of gardens that cover the campus of the Alexandria school. As a Science and Math Focus school in the Fairfax County school system, Hollin Meadows makes outdoor learning a key part of education for the more than 600 students it serves.
But four years ago, the school almost lost its leafy green centerpiece.
The school district made plans to cut its funding of focus programs starting with the 2011-12 school year. For Hollin Meadows, that included everything under the umbrella of its Science and Math Focus program, including its science and math resource teachers, its outdoor education coordinator and the money to maintain its gardens.
“Parents really didn’t want to see this go away,” Finnegan said. “If this goes away, we become just like any other school.”
When Finnegan first came to Hollin Meadows as a parent when her family moved to Fairfax County in 2009, she said she did not realize what she was getting in Hollin Meadows.
“Coming in as a new parent, you don’t even realize what’s going on,” Finnegan said. “Then slowly you see what this community has built.”
The school’s principal, Jon Gates, worked closely with parents in establishing the garden in 2004. The school was searching for a touchstone to set its science programs apart, and parents took ownership of the initiative. One parent even stepped up to serve as the outdoor education coordinator, which started as a volunteer post before becoming a part-time staff position in 2007.
A naturalist and nature educator, Finnegan quickly got caught up in the gardens herself. She started by volunteering for the former outdoor education coordinator, then applied for the job herself when her predecessor made plans to leave. But as she was applying for the job in 2011, the program’s fate remained up in the air.
The school community came together to start the Hollin Meadows Partnership for Science and Math Education in the fall of 2010, when their program went on the chopping block. Parents furiously raised money throughout the year, trying to raise the $170,000 needed to keep the science programs and the gardens intact.
The effort succeeded, and it has continued each year since then, as the Partnership continues to support the Science and Math Focus program. The money is donated to the school as a lump sum and cannot be earmarked for a particular purpose, but it is this money that allows the programs to continue, Gates said.
This year, the Partnership is hosting its fourth annual “Seeds of Today” fundraiser gala Saturday at 7 p.m., featuring a live and silent auction. Tickets for the gala cost $75 and can be purchased through the partnership’s website.
That the fundraising effort has not fizzled out is a tribute to the close relationship of the school and the community, Gates said.
“With schools, you always have a turnover and a transition of families,” Gates said. “To see that this keeps going, it shows that this effort wasn’t dependent on one group of families. This will continue. It’s now our identity.”
The school’s goal is not only to teach students through the garden, but also to inspire other schools to follow their lead.
“We try to establish ourselves as a replicable model,” Finnegan said. “Gardens can provide a real-world connection for so many subjects - science, social studies, math. Just start small, and you can really see it grow.”