St. John XXIII School’s Love Grows greenhouse was made possible by a grant from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s GIFTS program. (Submitted photo)

The harvest was plentiful this year for the St. John XXIII Love Grows greenhouse, but it wasn’t just limited to flowers, herbs and leafy greens. Growing amidst the carefully tended plants in the school’s 224-square-foot greenhouse was a spirit of innovation, a zeal for learning and an appreciation for the mystery of God’s created world.

The new greenhouse, whose completion was made possible by a 2022 GIFTS Grant from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, will provide students at the Port Washington school with a space to explore practical applications for concepts learned in the classroom. It’s all part of the school’s ongoing effort to expand its STEAM offerings, seeking to provide experiences that “go above and beyond the day-to-day curriculum,” said principal Kristine Klein.

“We want students to be able to explore, tap into their interests and talents, maybe go beyond, say, really liking math or social studies or science, and explore how that can evolve into a career down the road,” said Klein of the school’s STEAM goals. “Really, it’s just applying things to real life. It’s so much more practical and innovative for students to be involved in something that’s more meaningful for them, that they can relate to.”

Erika Mogilevsky, a middle school math and science teacher at St. John XXIII, said the greenhouse has provided “a great opportunity to allow our students to experience hands-on learning.”

“Projects like this encourage curiosity, communication (and) collaboration, and allow students to experience learning outside of the traditional classroom setting,” Mogilevsky said.

Planning for the greenhouse was undertaken by a core group of staff members led by Klein. The committee selected the Jefferson Premium Educational Greenhouse, a 14-by-16-foot structure with a galvanized steel frame that was delivered to the school in October 2022. Construction was completed by the school’s custodial staff, with assistance from parish volunteers, including the St. John XXIII’s Men’s Society. The structure was ready for use by the beginning of the school year’s third trimester in February.

Middle school students took charge of the greenhouse in the spring under Mogilevsky’s supervision in an elective class that kicked off in March with a visit to the Alverno College Greenhouse, an aquaponics facility that functions as a “living lab” for faculty and staff on the college’s Milwaukee campus. The students brought that knowledge back to Port Washington and got to work growing beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, herbs, potatoes, sunflowers, marigolds and more. Mogilevsky’s sister, Monica, who works for the UW-Madison Department of Soil Science, provided guidance on creating an optimal growing environment.

In the greenhouse, students were able to inhabit the roles of scientist, engineer, horticulturist and even nutritionist as they explored real-world applications of concepts relating to agriculture and sustainability. The collaborative and investigative process “brings a whole new meaning to learning and allows them to be hands on,” said Erin Brewster, the school’s Marketing and Development Director.

“It’s been a joy sharing it with new families as well. I love showcasing it on school tours, and I think it’s brought some excitement to our community,” Brewster said.

Students incorporated every subject into their work in the greenhouse — from science (learning about the growing cycle, growing conditions and plant anatomy) to math (data collection, documenting plant growth and measurements) to literature (reading books in class about the types of plants that were being grown) and even life skills (planning, consistency, hard work).

“It’s pretty amazing. The students (who) are really passionate about it (have) really found their niche,” said Klein.

For many students, said Mogilevsky, “it was the first time they had ever had the opportunity to plant a seed and watch the entire life cycle.”

“There was a sense of ownership and responsibility when we were in the greenhouse,” she said. “I saw kids step up as leaders of the greenhouse and take responsibility for many of the daily tasks. This was one of my favorite parts of the greenhouse project — sparking a passion in students that will last a lifetime.”

Next year, students from all grade levels will be involved in learning in the greenhouse, “on many different projects and course units,” said Klein. Recent Alverno College graduate Jaden Rieck will join the staff at St. John XXIII to lead the greenhouse project as a new fifth and sixth grade math and science teacher.

“The possibilities of how the greenhouse can be used are endless,” said Mogilevsky.

Grant Initiatives for Today’s Students is a Catholic schools grant program of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee that was founded in 2019 and is supported by funds raised at the annual Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner. The GIFTS program enhances faith-based education for Catholic school students in the greater Milwaukee area by distributing funds to support projects that align with one of four focus areas — Catholic identity, educational innovation, development/marketing and project initiation. The awards are determined by a panel led by the Superintendent of Catholic Schools, archdiocesan representatives and retired educators.

In addition to the GIFTS Grant, a grant from the Bruce Krier Foundation and a donation from a St. John XXIII parishioner also supported the Love Grows Greenhouse initiative.