Planting seeds for success: Students garden, grow veggies, & raise chickens at Renaissance Academy

Not even all adults have raised their own chickens or grown fruits and vegetables in their own garden before, but at Renaissance Academy, it’s part of the daily curriculum for K-8 students. The Mt. Pleasant charter school uses project-based learning and real-world applications to guide roughly 450 students along their learning journeys. 

Megan Nix is the school leader at Renaissance Academy, and says the K-8 public charter school focuses on incorporating inquiry as well as “voice and choice” within their curriculum. 

“Our goals for students include them having an authentic purpose for everything that they’re doing and learning at school, and having a voice in what that looks like and not just the direction of projects,” Nix says. “Oftentimes, that voice helps guide what types of things they’d like to learn and their interests as well.”

Courtesy Renaissance Academy
Taught through project-based learning, community engagement events, and school-wide projects, students have the chance to create something that often lives on even after they leave the school. From doing so, students learn responsibility, and have a sense of ownership and pride in their learning. 

Blake Buzard is a middle school teacher at Renaissance Academy, and leads the gardening program and brand new hoop house at the school. Funded by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, the hoop house was built with the help of parents, teachers, staff, students, and neighbors during a community build day back in May. 

Soon, the hoop house will be full of planters with tomatoes, peppers, beans, and peas grown by the middle school students themselves. 

“We built an 84 by 30-foot gothic style hoop house, built through a company called Nifty Hoops,” Buzard says. 

“It’s going to be a really cool backdrop for us to have students have opportunities for leadership, collaboration, and skill-building as they learn to grow food and care for plants,” he continues. “It’s important for us to have authentic things for the students to care about and take care of.”

Interacting with living organisms inside of the classroom is powerful for young minds, both in and outside of the typical academia setting, says Buzard. 

“My class started hatching and raising chickens, and it’s amazing when those eggs go in the incubator—attendance goes up. Kids are not missing school, they’re dying to be there,” he shares. “They don’t want to miss one of the chickens hatch or being a part of the process.”

Courtesy Renaissance Academy

Student-led and managed projects such as fish tanks, chicken coops, and gardens give students the chance to take on additional responsibilities. This in turn, sparks their enthusiasm for the school day and their potential future. 

Nix says the school’s vision for the students is that they can leave the school able to find their passion in life, having an impact on the world through their strengths, passions, and purpose. 

It’s also to encourage students to share their ideas, helping them realize they can create change—and can have an impact on the world. 

The reason there are rain gardens, chicken coops, and a hoop house on the school grounds is because students expressed a desire and interest in those things.

Buzard says the school says “yes” often to things that students are curious or passionate about. 

“If students have an interest, we want to follow that,” Nix echoes. “It’s also teaching them that they can take ownership of things that will have an impact on other people and in the world. That’s pretty huge for our kids to be able to feel that empowerment at such a young age.”

From kindergarten students starting seedlings and hatching butterflies, to elementary students building rain gardens, and middle school students leading the hoop house, Buzard says the efforts are school-wide. 

Courtesy Renaissance Academy

“It’s pretty neat to be at a place where K-8 students can sort of be working on the same thing together,” he says. “It always impresses me how well our oldest and youngest students can partner on something and work together.”

Some seventh and eighth graders work together in a variety of club options, including Garden Club on Thursdays. The sky’s the limit for what the club might grow into—including students harvesting produce to take home, sell at school, or sell to the community at a local farmer’s market. 

“There’s a lot of different things we could do with it,” Buzard says. “I think there’s also a hope and dream that some of our salad bar at lunch is stocked with some of the things that the kids are growing. A lot of that will be determined by where the students want to take it.”

The increased interest, energy, and time Renaissance Academy is putting into sustainability education is something unique to the area, says Nix. 

“We have been on a journey of implementing project-based learning for about the last 10 years now,” she says. “Our defining practices of the school really came together and were solidified about five or six years ago. Our move into the sustainability education that’s been happening has been moving a lot faster in the last three or four years.”

The feedback from that focused experiential learning has been positive. Students enjoy the opportunity to collaborate, and learn leadership roles; their parents are proud, too. Family dinner table conversations often revolve around the gardens, and provide updates regarding the chickens happen nightly. Students, their families, and even alumni have stopped by to help landscape the hoop house, and remain invested in the projects.

Buzard says he hears many adults admit they wish school was like this when they were students. 

It’s that sense of curiosity that sometimes gets lost in traditional school settings, but if kept alive, can spark so many other positive byproducts. 

“In a lot of traditional structures of education, it becomes more homework and task-driven, and students lose that ownership and pride in what they’re learning. They lose their curiosity,” Nix explains. 

“We’re trying to break the mold, and instead, continue to lean heavily into the ownership, authenticity, and curiosity for kids,” Nix concludes. “They’re going to be incredibly successful adults if they can hold onto those skills and continue to develop them.”
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Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at