January 1, 2021

Growing a Garden School

Paradigm Gardens in Central City is many things – a garden first and foremost, with plant sales, classes, and dinners, an event venue for weddings and outdoor concerts, a place to practice yoga with baby goats (yes!). All in all, a place to learn, gather, and grow.

So, starting a garden school – Louisiana’s first and only – seems almost a natural evolution.

Joel Hitchcock Tilton, co-owner and co-founder of Paradigm Gardens (and a former teacher himself), and his business partner Akeem Lewis, along with a few local parents, had been discussing homeschooling, hand-ons learning, and the concept of a garden school for a while.

“And then the pandemic hit, and it seemed like the perfect time to get started.” says Joel.

“We have ten students, ranging from ages two to sixteen years old, and we started the school as a cooperative venture with the parents.”

Parents are uniquely involved in the school, teaching cooking class, art class, running the plant sales, chaperoning field trips and leading warm up exercises to start the day. Paradigm School also gets help from its wonderful partners chef/owner Mason Hereford of Turkey and The Wolf and Chef/owner Dylan Maisel of The Daily Beet who provide lunch for the school  3 days a week.

The school’s Montessori-inspired, project-based curriculum runs Sundays through Thursdays, rotating between the Central City location of Paradigm Gardens and their Tchoupitoulas campus, with its greenhouse, animals, beehives, and mushroom garden. Tuesdays are field trip days, which Joels says, “we plan on opening (those) up to the community.”

As a free, self-funded school, participation by parents and children, keeping it small, and working together are key to making it work. Sunday’s school day entails the students participating in the weekly Paradigm Plant Sale (open to the public) that funds the school’s activities. Joel particularly finds this, “A great learning opportunity for the children, (with) the ability to engage in their education in other ways.”

Parents Lead The Way

Tucked into this garden oasis in Central City, parents participate in their children’s education, seeing their children, “at school and retraining their own mindsets about how school should look.” The garden school teaches the students everything from chef-led cooking to gardening skills, all the while using those activities to incorporate math, science, physics, and more in a real-world setting.

“We teach Spanish, reading, math, art, science, but use our unique opportunity to teach differently.” The biggest challenge, Joel continues, “Are the varying ages and learning styles of the children. So, our approach is not the same for every child, and also an important reason we want to keep it small.”

They don’t know how far or how long their school will continue, Joel confesses, as it is truly organic, in every sense of the word. But he’s humble and grateful for the opportunity they’ve been given, “As the saying goes,” he concludes our conversation, “to each according to their ability. To each according to their need.”

1131 S Rampart St., New Orleans, 504.344.9474, paradigmgardensnola.com


Ann Bower Herren is publisher and editor-in-chief of Nola Family.

Looking for more schools in the Greater New Orleans area? Check out the 2021 Early Learning School Guide.

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