ROGERS PARK — Sitting at a table inside Gale Math and Science Academy, 11-year-old Azaria Mallory answers questions about her school's gardening program with the quiet poise of a young adult.
But outside, within the gates of her beloved garden, she can't contain her excitement.
"This is the compost dirt. Look, touch it," she said, running to scoop up a handful.
As she leads the way through a long rectangular garden, she and fellow student Christian Garcia, 9, rush over to harvested rows and beds of soil to point out what will eventually sprout there: a bounty of melons, pumpkins, strawberries, cucumbers, beans, herbs, lettuce and more.
That list soon will include fruit trees for a mini urban orchard.
Azaria is the leader of her school's gardening club, a group of about 10 students who meet throughout the week to plant, nourish, grow, harvest, cook and learn about flora and food.
Christian and Azaria are quick to identify and differentiate between types of soils, grasses and plants.
They can tell you the scientific processes that allow flowers to be snipped and replanted, and can tell you all the things worms hate.
Between a handful of garden beds, an enclosed hoop house and a greenhouse on the middle school's third floor, students and community volunteers who engage with Gale's garden have plenty to do.
Interim Principal Augustine Emuwa said its place at the school has become a metaphor for everything Gale stands for and hopes to accomplish in the neighborhood.
"It's all about looking at things from a growth mindset," Emuwa said. "We grow kids, because we want kids to do the exact same thing our plants are doing in the school community. If a seed doesn't work, then we've got to figure it out. What we're really trying to do is grow our kids so they can grow our community."
Tonia Andreina with Christian Garcia and Azaria Mallory in the school's greenhouse [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
Not only do students learn about horticulture and agriculture, they learn how to solve problems at the individual and community levels.
The group looks to Tonia Andreina, director of the Genesis Project for the community organization A Just Harvest, to lead them in programming and personal conduct.
Before each meeting, members gather in a classroom in the greenhouse to sign their names on a laminated sign pledging to follow the club's rules and do work with purpose, integrity and commitment with the community in mind.
Part of the challenge of that process has been picking up where former Genesis Project and beloved community member Anthony Boatman left off when he died last year.
Boatman's spirit and memory is strong among the gardening program, affectionately called "Anthony's Garden Club."
The students also said part of their purpose is to help community members find a hobby and get off the streets.
Like Boatman, they want the garden to be a safe and welcoming place.
"He had this vision that he could bring the community together through a habit of gardening," Azaria said. "And get people off the streets and something to do with their time other than arguing with each other and shooting [each other] down on the streets with families crying."
Indeed, in 2015 a man was shot and killed just feet from the school's main garden next to its elementary building while students played outside at recess.
But with a new principal, a renewed sense of self as a school, and greenhouse program running, Gale is on an upswing.
The community gardening program is a big part of that, Emuwa said.
Several signs were built to honor deceased urban farming advocate Anthony Boatman. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]
Gale is hoping to secure public funds for a redesign and expansion of its community garden through the 49th Ward participatory budgeting process.
The new garden would include a stage, picnic tables, a walking labyrinth, "You Are Beautiful" fence affirmation, planters, decorative pathways and more.
Andreina said the group already works with Let's Go Chicago for educational programming and is planning to partner with other community groups to sell some of the flowers grown by the students with money going back into the garden group.
Christian said he sees lots of gardening in his future, which includes hopes of becoming a scientist.
Having landed at Gale in the fall after its former principal left, Emuwa said the garden program already has had a tremendously positive impact on the school and community and is something he hopes to take to the next level. The interim principal wants to make Gale his long-term home.
"I'm pretty taken aback and pretty emotional about it," Emuwa said. "When I think about the green spaces at the school and the learning opportunities that go to the kids, and to hear two of our students express it so well, it's like 'wow."
Azaria said she wants people in the neighborhood to know they always have a place to go so long as the gardening club is around.
"We're doing this to give them a place, or just something to do if they're in trouble or they're bored ... they can come in, work in the garden or volunteer to just help out," Azaria said. "Or if they need a certain kind of plant or produce that we have, we can give it to them. Just know that we're here."
Photos by Linze Rice.