Here we grow

A school garden project

By Kathryn Coulibaly 

Special education teachers Catherine Slutzky and Robyn Ivey are known in Bergen County’s Northern Valley Regional High School District for their innovative projects and resourcefulness when it comes to creating educational opportunities for their students.  

During the 2021-22 school year, Slutzky and Ivey brought their students to Greens Do Good, a Vertical Farm in Hackensack that supports and employs people with autism. Greens Do Good is a fully operational hydroponic farm. Greens Do Good staff, particularly Jessalin Jaume, were invaluable in getting the students involved in planting, harvesting and learning about the life cycle of plants. Slutzky and Ivey were inspired to create a school garden where their students could take more ownership and engage with the plants every day.  

Slutzky and Ivey applied for an NJEA Frederick L. Hipp grant in spring 2022 and were awarded $3,562 for approximately 35 students on the autism spectrum between the ages of 16-21 to learn vocational skills and healthy living habits.  

Taking what they learned from Greens Do Good, Slutzky and Ivey researched what they would need and wrote the grant to maximize every penny. In addition, staff from Cleatus Farms in nearby Northvale made suggestions about products and materials and set up two large grow centers, complete with lamps, to help them get started.  

NJEA Frederick L. Hipp grants are open to any public school employee in New Jersey and are intended to promote great ideas and innovative projects that benefit public school students. The grants range from $500 to $10,000.  

Repeat Hipp Grant winner

Slutzky was already familiar with the NJEA Hipp Grant program. In 2019, she was awarded a $2,850 grant for a project called Access to the Links that paired teenagers with autism and their peers to play golf. Connecting through sports was a great way for the students to interact with neurotypical students and build community. The high school golf team worked with a golf pro to build their skills and they, in turn, taught what they had learned to the students with autism. Together, the students developed their skills and created a feeling of camaraderie. While the program was disrupted by the global pandemic, students and staff saw many benefits. Slutzky would like to continue the program and expand it to the other high school in the district. She is currently in search of a Bergen County area golf pro to participate.   

A learning process 

Thanks to Slutzky and Ivey’s efforts, Here We Grow has bloomed to include a greenhouse and additional stations for growing plants. The produce that they grow is used to teach students about healthy eating and for meal preparation at the school. Additional produce is available for staff, families and the community to purchase. They have recently expanded the business to include salad dressing that staff can use on their school-grown salad.  

Space is one of the largest challenges they face. The classroom is packed with supplies and growing stations, including a small greenhouse. They plan to expand the outside to include a larger greenhouse and garden. Ideally, they would like to extend their growing—and learning—season from March through December. They also would like to create outside learning areas that everyone in the school can access, and possibly begin to keep chickens and build a chicken coop.   

“This has been a learning process; we’re learning what we can grow in this space and outside,” Ivey said.  

The students are very involved in the garden project. They check the pH daily, transplant seedlings when it’s necessary, harvest the crop, market the produce to staff and much more.

“It’s nice to see the students take ownership over the garden,” Slutzky said.  

As a result of their success with the Hipp grants, Slutzky has written other grants, including Bergen County municipal grants and the Realtors Care Foundation. In addition, a relationship has been built with the Norwood Environmental Commission. 

“These projects give our students excellent vocational skills, and gardening has been proven to benefit everyone physically and from a mental health perspective,” Slutzky said. “We’re excited to continue to expand our efforts and to get even more people involved.”  

Northern Valley Regional teacher Catherine Slutzky and her students celebrate their grant from the Hipp Foundation.

Garden projects benefit everyone 

According to research compiled by Cornell University, garden projects enhance the quality of life for everyone, from expanding access to fresh food, providing exercise and other health benefits, encouraging multigenerational cooperation, making our spaces more beautiful, benefiting the environment, bridging the gaps between people and so much more.  

From an academic perspective, school garden projects help boost learning and life skills and integrate the curriculum with practical experiences. Students who participate in garden projects develop “a wide range of academic and social skills.”  

For students on the autism spectrum, school garden projects are especially beneficial. According to Autism Awareness Centre, Inc., garden activities can address gross and fine motor skills. Moving dirt and rocks, digging, pulling weeds, raking, watering, planting, pinching plants and picking vegetables can all teach a variety of skills as well as build muscle, endurance, and dexterity. 

Gardening also is a calm activity that provides opportunities to follow instructions, cooperate and socialize. There is something for everyone to do in a garden, and this builds confidence and self-esteem.  

Apply for an NJEA Hipp Grant  

Grants from the NJEA Frederick L. Hipp Foundation for Excellence in Education help educators bring creative ideas to life. The only foundation of its kind in New Jersey, the Hipp Foundation supports initiatives to promote great ideas—whether they come from teachers, secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria staff, or any other member of the school community.   

More than $2.3 million in grants for innovative educational projects that represent a bold, fresh approach by public school employees has already been awarded. Apply for a Hipp grant and bring your innovative ideas to life. The annual deadline is March 1 each year. The portal will open on July 1, 2023 for the coming year. Grants range from $500 to $10,000. Learn more at

Kathryn Coulibaly is the associate editor of the NJEA Review and provides content and support to She can be reached at