Around a decade after beginning his career as a physical education teacher at Athol Road Primary, Bryan Hunter says he was beginning to lose his passion for the role. “Luckily, my principal Ruby Toombs could sense that. She knew that I was passionate about the environment and sustainability.”
Ms Toombs decided to start an environment education program as a specialist subject to stand alongside music, PE, art and LOTE – and she wanted Bryan to teach it. “She wanted it to be different; something that’s never been done in a Victorian primary school,” recalls Bryan. “She urged me to think outside the box.”
In 2011, a modular building was craned onto the site and, as the newly appointed Environmental Education teacher, Bryan transformed it into a magical place of learning. The classroom is home to many animals: bearded dragons, blue-tongued lizards, stick insects, green tree frogs, yabbies, guppies and turtles. There is an eclectus parrot called Raymond and a blue and yellow macaw called George.
For over a year, he worked with students to turn what was a “rocky wasteland” into a fully recirculating wetland. The City of Dandenong provided 300 plants for the Indigenous garden. It has become “a learning landscape” where the children visit weekly to test the water and look at the animals, including turtles and frogs.
“Everything we grow will either be sold on a Friday to our parent community for a dollar or used in our cooking program.”
Athol Road Primary is now a productive farm generating more than 1.5 tonnes of produce a year. They make use of some warmer microclimates around the campus to grow sub-tropical plants such as bananas, pawpaw and sapote. In 2020, the school installed a polytunnel in which they grow tomatoes and ginger throughout Melbourne’s winter.
“It started as a vegie garden, but now we look at it as an urban farm because it’s so much bigger than what we started with,” Bryan says. “Everything we grow will either be sold on a Friday to our parent community for a dollar or used in our school cooking program.”
The school has 66 Biofilta Foodcubes, or wicking beds, designed to increase food production while reducing water use. They are ideal for arid conditions such as Australian primary schools during the summer holidays. Rather than watering from above with a hose or drip irrigation, Athol Road Primary fills up the reservoir underneath the beds and the water wicks up into the soil from below – a process Bryan describes as “set and forget”.
Early on, Bryan was mentored by Rob Wakelam, who ran a local nursery. Bryan explains: “I wanted the garden to be a teaching tool. I wanted to show different ways to grow things from traditional vegie beds to vertical gardens and aquaponics. I wanted a greenhouse to show propagation of cuttings.”
Chickens, ducks, alpacas, guinea pigs and sheep provide treasured manure for the gardens. The students learn to do everything from feeding the animals to collecting the eggs. The chicken and duck eggs are popular at the Friday market. Last summer, they harvested 40 kilograms of honey, which sold out in ten minutes.
“All of these animals provide something different for our students. The parents love it. When they come to drop off the kids, you see them up at the fence interacting with the animals.”
The students of Athol Road Primary School have strong cultural ties to Vietnam, China, India and Cambodia, and over 85% speak a language other than English at home. Bryan says that there can be a language barrier at times, but sees how “gardening breaks down that barrier”. He makes a deliberate effort to grow plant species known to Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Cambodian gardeners such as kiwi, shungiku (edible chrysanthemum), dragonfruit and ginger.
There is a positive symbiosis at work here between principal, teachers, students and the community at large. Bryan credits the principal with fostering and supporting worthwhile projects.
“Ruby is the kind of person where if you have an idea that is going to enhance student learning and you present that case to her, nine times out of ten she’ll go with it.”
Ten years on from starting the new subject, the Athol Road Primary environment program is still evolving, Bryan says. “I think that all schools should have an environmental education program operating within the school that all students have access to. These kids come from a low socio-economic background but they’re at one of the luckiest schools around.”