Marin teacher gets national honor for school garden

Dana Swisher, a teacher at Neil Cummins Elementary School in Corte Madera, watches a butterfly in the school garden on Thursday, Aug.  11, 2022. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
Dana Swisher, a teacher at Neil Cummins Elementary School in Corte Madera, watches a butterfly in the school garden on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)

A Marin second-grade teacher who took a struggling school garden and turned it into a native plant ecosystem, community asset and educational platform has won an award from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Dana Swisher, who has worked at Neil Cummins Elementary School in Corte Madera since 2006, was one of 11 school professionals throughout the nation to receive the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators at a ceremony Aug. 4 in Washington, DC

Neil Cummins Elementary School is part of the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District.

“This year’s award winners demonstrate how environmental education fosters our future stewards and innovators by connecting them to the soil, water and air around us,” Martha Guzman, a regional administrator for the EPA, said in a statement after the awards ceremony.

“There is no better way to build future environmental leaders than by bringing children closer to their land and food,” Guzman said.

Swisher, 58, of Larkspur is a longtime home gardener and parent of three children who have attended Neil Cummins. As she continued teaching over the years, she realized that children needed an experience of the world beyond the classroom and textbooks.

“The garden offers a place for students to be outside and develop an appreciation for the natural world,” Swisher said.

Swisher began her overhaul of the school’s “Hawks’ Garden” in earnest during the pandemic. She replanted a swath that had been decimated by gophers with native plants. She installed vegetable, fruit and flower plants in large oval metal bins to protect them.

Also, she worked with community groups and municipal agencies to launch a native plants border around a portion of Corte Madera Town Park, which is adjacent to the garden and shares a fence with the campus.

“She’s made the garden a chronicle of the cycle of things through the seasons,” said Larkspur resident and Neil Cummins school parent July Johnson. “She’s bringing it to light for so many kids.”

Johnson nominated Swisher for the 2021 Marin County integrated pest management award. Swisher was one of the recipients of that award. Then Johnson helped Swisher with the application for the EPA award.

Johnson noted that Swisher’s ability to speak Spanish means that she is able to share the joy of gardening across diverse school populations.

“She’s able to work with the English language learner kids, and those with disabilities,” Johnson said. “They might be normally pretty quiet, but they come to life in the garden.”

Swisher said she is glad to have more public recognition about the value of teaching children about native plants such as buckwheat, sage and fuchsia.

The value, she said, is that by integrating the native plants and mixing certain vegetable and flower species together, gardeners can curb pests while also attracting pollinators, such as bees and hummingbirds.

“We’re providing food and forage for birds and other wild creatures all year round,” Swisher said.

Swisher said she takes her 25 second-graders into the garden on a regular basis. She also works with other teachers at the K-5 school to help them integrate environmental studies into their class schedules. About 500 children in the school take part in the garden visits.

“The kids often say, I feel so much better after spending some time here,” Swisher added. “What we’re doing for the garden, we’re also doing for ourselves.”