John Muir High School Principal Lawton Gray presented the Pasadena Board of Education with plans to “reimagine” the school’s innovative gardening and growing program for students as a responsibility of the school district, not the high school.

Under the new plan, all activities at the Muir Ranch will be student-centered and integrated with other programs at John Muir High. The programs will be operated by the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), Pasadena Education Foundation (PEF) staff and that nonprofit group’s partners. The paid non-student workers will be accountable to Gray, according to a PowerPoint presentation made to the board on May 24.

“We want to make sure it’s an outdoor classroom. Biology and science classes would also have access to the area for learning opportunities,” Gray told the board.

No vote was taken on the information item.

Muir Ranch is a 3.5-acre “biodynamic urban teaching farm and teen jobs program.” Since its launch in May 2012, according to the district website, more than 50 teens have participated in the program and the farm has expanded.

Muir Ranch started with a few flower beds as the brainchild of retired science teacher Doss Jones, who had a vision for an outdoor classroom.

The program officially began after the Pasadena Water and Power Department awarded the school a grant and Jones started working with Shirley Barrett, PUSD facilities grounds coordinator.

The seven-year-old program came under scrutiny earlier this year after the district announced plans to close it down because it did not comply with PUSD administrative guidelines.

According to district officials, the ranch had strayed from its initial learning objectives and was not properly insured, leaving the district at risk. In addition, district officials said records of the farms finances were not properly kept.

Supporters of the ranch called on the district to keep it open, and plans were later made to restructure management of the project without Matthew “Mud“ Baron, who has led the program since its inception.

On May 24, several students who worked on the ranch with Baron denounced Gray’s plan, saying it would sever relationships with former students who had come through the program.

“How can you guys take control of it” asked James Garcia, who worked under Baron? “You’re in suits and you don’t know how to farm.”

Baron slammed the proposal. 

“I could give the keys to the ranch to James Garcia and he would do 10 times better than what I saw. Why can’t we engage in an opportunity for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) so you can allow them to do the amazing work they are doing? That’s what this reimagining is doing. It’s ending that. When are we going to sit down and have that discussion?”

The board did not answer Baron’s question or listen to his proposal.

“The Muir ranch is under new management,” said Board of Education member Michelle Richardson Bailey. “I think it’s great that the community is so passionate about it, but I don’t think anyone is more passionate about it than the school community. The intention was never to get rid of it. It was to reimagine it.”

Under the new plan, a portion of the ranch will be rededicated to growing fruits and vegetables for consumption in the school cafeteria.

The PUSD wellness coordinator, master gardener and food and nutritional services staff will plan menus with seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables featured in cafeteria meals.

Additional produce grown at the ranch will be used for a pop-up farm stand, a small business that supplies inexpensive fruits and vegetables to neighborhood residents. The remaining produce would be delivered to local food distribution programs. 

An afterschool course, “Teaching Food Systems — Farm to Fork,” would be added to the school’s curriculum. The course would be offered two days a week. Proposed lessons include “Farmers, Factories and Food Chains,” “Crops, Ecosystems and Health,” “Why We Eat What We Eat,” “The Hunger Gap,” and “Our Wasted Food.”

Students will be hired as paid interns or receive financial incentives to participate in the garden. The money for those students would be raised by the school and would not come from district’s general budget.

The interns will harvest, clean, prepare and serve the produce in the school cafeteria and act as peer advocates for healthy eating.

Several local organizations have already committed to the program, including Kiss the Ground, for curriculum and teacher training; Foothill Unity Service, for a food bank program; Huntington Gardens, for field trips and curriculum development; Day One, for classroom visits by nutrition educators and healthy eating resources; and Lincoln Café, for prepared food sales and internships.

The school will seek grants from the US Department of Agriculture and the EPA.

Muir Ranch is part of the Pasadena Unified Farm-to-School Program which works with nine other functioning production gardens. The PEF “Gardenteers” will provide a volunteer community-school connection to support garden maintenance.

The Muir Ranch program already has a working relationship with the Pasadena Community Gardens Conservancy, the Pasadena Community Foundation and Tournament of Roses/MiracleGro.

Muir Students may also qualify for the UCLA master gardener program, through student training and certification, according to the presentation.

Board Member Scott Phelps questioned Gray on what measures he would take to provide accountability.

“There has to be some type of process to account for how funds are being spent and what they are being spent on,” Gray said. “The principal’s job is to make sure everything is being done correctly.”

Gray said relationships with former students and volunteers would continue.

Phelps praised Gray when contacted by the Pasadena Weekly.

“We have always had this issue of accountability with the ranch. It makes sense the principal should be able to hold them accountable. I am interested in seeing how it goes. I think it will be successful. The students can still participate.”

“It is important to have meaningful job opportunities for students,” Gray said. “That’s not part of the reimagining, but we want to keep that going where there are job opportunities for students. We want to bring from the produce from the farm to family tables.”