RANCHO CIENEGA : Students Celebrate Fruits of Their Labor

After a year and a half of hard work, a group of Dorsey High students have turned a neglected patch of their athletic field into an unlikely field of greens--as well as potatoes, watermelon, herbs and other fruits and vegetables.

Last week, students and local dignitaries celebrated the spring harvest in the garden with a spread including lemonade, chips and home-grown salsa. Once a practice spot for shotputters, the corner of Dorsey's track stadium is now fertile ground, thanks to the efforts of special education teacher Rene Klein and volunteers from the University of California's Cooperative Extension.

"My special-ed kids love the garden," said Klein, who supervises about 25 students who tend the garden each week. "It's success-oriented, very therapeutic. . . . they've been really great with it."

Despite having handicaps ranging from mild learning disabilities to autism, students have faithfully tended the small plots since September, 1992. Klein received about $2,800 in grant money from Toyota, Philips Petroleum and the Gas Co. for the garden, as well as equipment and volunteer donations from the nonprofit Common Ground garden program, C & S Nursery, Raindrip Inc., the state Department of Conservation and the city Environmental Affairs Department.

Klein said the greatest asset has been Elaine Miller, a volunteer with the University of California-sponsored Cooperative Extension, the agricultural equivalent of the UC extension program. Miller has worked closely with the students since the beginning, when the land, with too little topsoil to grow even weeds, had to be rehabilitated.

"We like to emphasize growing from seed so that students can really see the growing process," Miller said. "Students get their own beds or plots, and take responsibility for them. Once things are picked, they also learn how to share."

The land, with its brightly painted sign proclaiming the "Dorsey High Student Garden," is next to Rodeo Road near La Brea Avenue, and school officials warned Miller that the garden would be a target for vandals. But such fears were never realized, and Klein and her crew have begun building a roofed patio and erecting an arbor that will soon be covered with grapes.

"The biggest obstacle has been getting the water irrigation system in place," said Klein, "but now we're just fine."

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