SGSO & School Garden Staffing Models

Summary of findings from the 2021 SGSO Leadership Institute. Compiled by, Robin Jenkinson - Gulf Islands School District, British Columbia & Macayla Cote - Mill City Grows, Lowell, MA, who interviewed school garden support organizations and documented their staffing roles and models. Additional contributions taken from our online forum and past Leadership Institutes. Sample job descriptions provided by Rick Sherman, School Garden Specialist for Oregon State.

Key Elements Related to Staffing SGSOs


  • Programs that provide garden educators and also encourage teachers to participate along with their class seem to be more resilient over time.
  • AmeriCorps has challenges and benefits that must be weighed before diving in.
  • Having school district support increases opportunities to develop and create more long-term sustainable programs / positions in schools.
  • Good pay, benefits and professional development, camaraderie, along with opportunities for advancement lead to staff retention.
  • Well-facilitated youth involvement can lead to societal support and great future staff!
  • Stay with the same group for ~10 years and your group will usually be successful at that point!

Successful Strategies

Common Challenges

  • Employing educators in and across many schools that teaching both in-school and after-school programs, allowing for more full-time work.
  • Investment in staff training and professional developments for educators
  • Trained garden educators that work alongside teachers.
  • Community-based organizations that provide funds and deliver programs.
  • Youth employment models
  • Securing school district positions and funding
  • Opportunities for job advancement
  • Staff not reflective of community demographics
  • Ongoing fundraising and uncertainty about program continuity.

SGSO & School Garden Staffing Models

Parent or Community Volunteers
Robin & Crew on Salt Spring Island

Inherent support for their own children’s learning and experiences. Great way to connect community and families around gardening and the school. School parent association is a natural fundraising body for garden activities, and parent involvement creates momentum and enthusiasm. Creative and unique approaches are shared with a constant influx of new participants.


 Parents can “age-out” when their children graduate. Inconsistent and minimal availability. Only available for their children’s class or school. Not necessarily trained in teaching or crowd control, so generally require teacher assistance. May not understand general curricular goals and alignment with teacher objectives. A lot of responsibility placed on volunteers.

High School Buddy Teaching or Community Service Programs
Gardeneers, Chicago Illinois


Partnered with a local organization, Gardneers has a 3 day per week high school program that gives the students a stipend. This mentorship model had students super-engaged and connected to their community and would eventually pipeline into AmeriCorps positions. Gardneers hired 4 of those student/ AmeriCorps leaders into now full-time employees!

Wants to work with colleges / universities to continue a pipeline program not just offerent serve member positions

Mill City Grows, Lowell MA

Partnered with a CTI in Lowell, MCG delivers an 8 week program stipend by the city for 8-10 youth in Lowell. Great way to engage with their community and have autonomy of their school garden spaces. In most cases, this is the students first job so our partnered organization CTI teaches them for 2 weeks professional development training and money management skills before they enter their assigned work force – pipeline for students to continue in the Farm & Market Apprenticeship program.

If students want to grow with us but not on the farm/market team, we wouldn’t always have a pipeline opportunity for them to continue their work with us,

College Interns or Class Placements/Practicums

The University of Arizona’s Community & School Garden Program places 50+ interns per semester in local educational gardens. Their program is one of the most well developed university/school district models in the nation.


The University of California has created a toolkit for school districts, SGSOs, and universities the discusses three models for engaging university students in local school gardens.


Read about Life Lab’s Ideas for Working with College Interns

Classroom Teachers
Fernwood School, Salt Spring Island, BC


The teacher can use paid staff time to develop and deliver lessons, inviting other classes into the garden to partner with his/her class on activities, or swap classes if need be. S/he has access to materials and class funds and can directly request school funds or parent committee donations. S/he is at the school each day, so can water and care for the garden on breaks or while the kids are outdoors, too. The teacher is a teacher! They know how to teach and engage the whole group.


Teachers are already stretched thin with all the demands placed on them. Most teachers who also take on a garden end up volunteering a lot of time beyond their paid hours to make the program work well. Teachers may not have the same opportunities to connect with community partners and school families that other models have, since they’re busy teaching! It takes a special, creative garden-passionate person to make this a focus for their class, let alone support school-wide garden-based learning.

Classroom Teacher Models

Prep time model – we have seen models where a roving garden educator is employed at a school site to serve as a regular prep time release teacher. The garden educator takes classes to the garden, relieving the classroom teacher for prep time. 

Sub swap model – we have seen models where a “long term substitute” relieves a classroom teacher on a regular basis like once a week or every other week. This releases the teacher to serve as the garden teacher for the school site.

Garden-Based Learning Support Staff

A team or individual that provides guidance, training, technical assistance, training, and/or materials for teachers and/or volunteers that teach in school gardens.

School Garden Program Framework OSSE School Gardens Program:  A list of typical roles and responsibilities of SGSO staff members.

Plant the Seed, Nashville, TN


Hire and train facilitators that they ½ time or ¾ time staff for each school work-alongside teachers, integrate the culture of gardening into the school. Focused on integrated into the culture


Wishingful thinking (every hire being full time/ salaried) didn’t work out for the long run – we do have some staff members who will through the summer but some don’t. We mirror the school-time off, with younger people we adjusted the time off

Garden Coordinators / Garden Teachers
Mill City Grows, Lowell MA


Education Coordinator position – deliver in-school afterschool programs across the district, support and manages school garden leadership teams, manages the maintenance of garden structures & spaces 


Hard to be equitable across all the school gardens in the district without the necessary funding to hire additional interns / or school garden positions.

Land to Learn, Hudson Valley, NY


“How can we maximize what we’re doing?” – Really investing in the staff and looking at the staff as an incredibly valuable resource. Paid at a good level. Respected. Entrenched part of the school community. Our staff is like family at the staff we work in – because there’s low turnover – see kids growing up. You’re walking around seeing fourth graders that went through the program and they  ate broccoli for dinner. Investing in your staff. They do staff retreats, staff outings, we spend a good amount of time together. I wonder what happens when it gets bigger. 


Funding is that foundations don’t want to cover salary even though that’s the biggest expense, we’re usually able to show that our program is the staff – Also, want to have a pipeline for students

Americorps Service Members


offer mentorship, youth employment, future employees


greater initial investment in training, one-year placements=loss of continuity, not enough paid to service members. One must decide if AmeriCorps amplifies your organization’s mission or become your mission — can lead to mission drift. 

Common Threads - Bellingham, WA


We have a core staff – Erica just started as a Farm and Kitchen Manager along with the Education Manager supervising the teams. Invest a lot of time in legacy documentation. Our small core staff of five, put a lot of energy into the things we learn one year passing onto the next.



The downside of our AmeriCorps service model is that folks we recruit are young still figuring out who they want to be in the world. We get feedback about how formative this year was. How lightbulbs went off in their heads about agriculture, social education, etc. 

SGSO Staffing Model Organization Case Study Snapshots

Plant the Seed
Plant the Seed

Susanah Fotopulos, Executive Director, Plant the Seed

Nashville, TN (urban)

Serves 6 schools and reaches 1,400 K-4 students weekly

Budget $269,000 from Grants/Foundations/Donors, School district funding, School funding

5 paid staff: Garden Education Facilitators (50% to 75% FTE), Operations Manager (FTE), Executive Director (FTE).

Founded in 2014

Teach alongside teachers

“We have found success operating as a nonprofit and hiring and training our team to support teachers, rather than asking teachers to facilitate the garden education themselves,” says Susanah. “It allows us to serve as a true support, rather than an add-on or extra duty for teachers. And, if a student is struggling, the classroom teacher can pull them aside and attempt to re-engage. It also provides an opportunity for the traditional classroom teachers to learn alongside their students and to more effectively integrate the lessons from the garden into their traditional classroom. We don’t find the same success without teacher participation. I think it helps to create buy-in and connection to the school culture.”


District funding leads to committed staff


Plant the Seed has secured a 10-year contract with the public School District to deliver garden activities and maintain six school gardens, which provides base funds to hire salaried positions, including administration and communications, with paid time off. They’ve mostly hired mature adults, who stay for at least 2-3 years. Pay is comparable to what teachers make. They hold regular staff gatherings and celebrations. She says, “The culture and mission has attracted people who have a heart for this work and who want this as a way of life.” 

Land to Learn Logo
Land To Learn

Nicole Porto, Education Director, Land to Learn

Hudson Valley region, NY (urban) 

Serves 11 schools and reaches 5,000 K-2 students

Budget $637,000 from Grants/Foundations/Donors, School district funding

Staff: 9 full time: 3 Admin (Execuive Director; Development Director; Director of Operations), 6 Program Managers/Garden Educators each serve 2 schools, plus 2-3 seasonal/part time Garden Assistants. 

Founded in 2012

Staff is our most valuable resource

“I think we’re special in some way and that’s why I wanted to share our staffing model,” says Nicole. “Our staff are all quite experienced in gardening and educating. Program Manager salaries start at $42,000 with benefits and a generous amount of paid time off. Staff members are granted autonomy and leadership opportunities within our team, which works very collaboratively. We have low turnover rates and very dedicated people working towards our mission.” 


Funding salaries is challenging, so they try to show that their program IS their staff. “My advice for other SGSO’s is to consider your staff your most valuable resource and make investing in them a top priority.” For example, they pay for professional development time and give people more important-sounding titles like Program Manager. 


School District MOU’s lead to long-term funding

When we started, we were offering our services at no cost to the districts. After a couple of years they began to contribute funding to cover a portion of our program expenses. We accomplished this by starting out very small, with just one staff person and some volunteers, and then once we got our footing and were able to hire more staff, we delivered a strong, effective program that we showcased to the school board and superintendent who decided that our program was worth funding. At present, two school districts pay about 30% of the total and that is negotiated annually. Her advice: “Try to get those contracts and formalize the service agreement with the schools from the beginning.”


Hire teens to care for gardens over the summer

We work with youth employment programs to hire teen staff over the summer, who help with garden maintenance (and with facilitating education programs). Government (state/county) youth employment programs pay the wages of the temporary teen summer staff. We partner with teen programs who handle most of the communications with these government institutions.


Nicole would love to see expanded teen and college paid internship and apprenticeship programs to help maintain gardens and teach summer programs.

Gardeneers Logo

May Tsupros, Co-founder & Board Member, Gardeneers

Chicago, IL (urban)

Serves 19 schools and reaches 1,800+ students, K-12

Budget $800,000 from Government (Americorps) and Foundation Grants, Corporate Sponsors, fee-for-service programming, Large Fundraising events, Individual giving

Staff: 8 full time: 3 Admin (Executive Director; Director of Partnership; Director of Operations), 3 Garden/ Farm or Program managers, 2 Garden Educators, 2 Part Time Garden educators, 8 Americorps Service Members

Founded in 2014

AmeriCorps is an employment pipeline for youth

May explains she is “very proud of this model”. Gardneers partnered with a local High School to create a 3 day per week program that gives students a stipend. This mentorship model had students super-engaged and connected to their community and would eventually pipeline into AmeriCorps positions. Gardeners hired 4 of those student/ AmeriCorps leaders into now full-time employees! We ramped up our high school program and we deepened that program to three days per week and partnered with an organization that gave the students stipends, and the super-engaged students would get paid for summer programming. It allowed us to bring in the next step of an AmeriCorps program. We started our own charter for AmeriCorps with eight service members and funneled high school students into AmeriCorps. Subsidized up to $21k per year, and could get an education award and added to that, too. Gardeneers has now successfully hired four of these people as full-time staff managers. One garden educator and one service member. $45k salary for full time. Students from those schools could return as educators. Mentorship is an unplanned but positive aspect of this. They were able to keep staff members on during Covid because of AmeriCorps and have a low budget. They were able to stay on and take care of gardens and continue with online learning.


Include Teachers in Garden Lessons

We would have a model to ask the teacher to participate and be a part of the activities and you can take what you learned about and take it back into the classroom. Two garden educators plus the teacher at all times, later employed AmeriCorps members to do this instead.


Have an amazing inspirational garden

Old raised rail bed part of Sears & Roebuck Headquarters that has become a garden/farm. Sounds amazing! It’s got five 100-foot hoop houses. Huge pollinator space. They took over the space. Affordable housing all around this raised rail line and vision was that they would grow their own food. The Homan Rails Farm became the Gardeneers Farm. AmeriCorps is the Farm Manager there.  


Lessons Learned – Partner with Local University

May reflected that, “If I were to do it again, instead of AmeriCorps, I would do the model at a smaller scale. The government contracting is very cumbersome.” She would continue the pipeline program, but create a community college or university partnership so that they were working within the community with resources that are already there. She believes that: “The purpose of the non-profit is to work itself into obsoletion,” so integrating the garden programs into local, existing assets is more sustainable long-term. 

For example, with her new organization called Partridge Creek Farm in Michigan, she has a robust partnership with a local state university– Northern Michigan University.  Each year, mostly in the summer, they take on 8-10 unpaid interns who help with all aspects of the organization– growing, community outreach, youth education, and even compost.  This greatly extended our program reach; both providing education and food access in the Ishpeming community.

Common Threads
Common Threads

Laura Plaut Executive Director

Common Threads Farm,

Bellingham, WA (primarily serving Whatcom County with partners currently in Island and King County as well)

21-50 over 5,000 “equal” mix is not quite accurate, we’re about 2/3 urban

26 Paid garden educators

Students’ parents/caregivers volunteers

$ 974,797.00 Budget – Grants/Foundations/Donors, School district funding, PTO (Parent Teacher Organizations) funds, Earned income, Federal/State funds through our partnerships with AmeriCorps and SNAP Ed


Committed Garden Champion

Laura has been doing this for 15 years now. But it’s brand new each year to all of our staff. Erica just started as a Farm and Kitchen Manager along with the Education Manager supervise the teams. Invest a lot of time in legacy documentation. Our small core staff of five, put a lot of energy into the things we learn one year passing onto the next. 


AmeriCorps makes this all possible

Our staffing model and funding model are inextricably connected. Over the past decade we have successfully cultivated a relationship with AmeriCorps at the state level, the funds we get through CNCS (Corporation for National and Community Service) are critical to our ability to serve as many students as we do.  It does mean a lot of eggs in one basket, though – and still a lot of year to year scrambling to secure the additional support needed from schools, individual donors, and private foundations.


Our model is strong, but not without its challenges. We recruit, train and support AmeriCorps food educators.  They are passionate and capable, but generally green as educators and stay with us for 1-2 years. We’ve developed strong systems around legacy documentation and clear expectations with schools so that even as our AmeriCorps members come and go, schools count on us as a steady organizational partner.  Particularly as our team has grown, giving them the support they need has required us to add several full time staff positions. While the model isn’t perfect, it does feel sustainable.


Our staffing model is a blessing and a curse. So much better than just volunteers, invest a lot in training and support in food educators – it’s full time and it’s their service. 


As exhausting as this staffing model is, I think it’s worthwhile. We’re working to launch a generation of knowledgeable citizens into the world. All these young people will be better informed — 


The downside of our AmeriCorps service model is that folks we recruit are pretty green, figuring out who they want to be in the world. We get feedback about how formative this year was. How lightbulbs went off in their heads about agriculture, social education, etc. 


There are two service orientations – the schools and the AmeriCorps members. We’re all learning and growing together. How we staff and how we’re funded are so connected to each other. We definitely would not be able to do the volume of service if it weren’t for AmeriCorps. We’re reaching about 9000 kids per year – wow! If you could our statewide service partners. 


Invest time into school district partnerships 

As mentioned above, our partnership with AmeriCorps is key.  So is our partnerships with school districts.  Over the years, we have gained the ear and the trust of key players across departments of teaching and learning, food services, and buildings and grounds.  Listening well to these various stakeholders has been key to our success, as has setting up clear systems to leverage the enthusiasm of parent volunteers as well as college aged volunteers and interns.


We have Mt. Baker School District has committed to paying a portion of the cost through the District budget. They’re paying <20% of the actual cost. We’ve always required a membership fee. 


Slow down for a sec – interested in starting conversations with schools and school district partners. If I could get everyone to slow down for a second, I would love to have meaningful conversations with the school districts and partners.


Create Clear Legacy Documents: curriculum & Garden Care Manuals for volunteers

Yes, we’ve developed curricular resources over the years (and stood on the shoulders of programs like LifeLab, particularly for NGSS alignment) and have gotten to the point where gardening and cooking are considered as normal a part of the school day as music or P.E. Getting ourselves into the routine schedules of schools has been a huge win.



They have also developed a successful school garden summer care manual. Success varies from school to school and from year to year, but being really explicit in the tasks and supportive of families who have the interest but not necessarily always the skills for summer care has been a slow and steady win.

Edible Schoolyard NOLA Logo
Edible Schoolyard NOLA

Amelia Bird, Program Manager, New Orleans

5 gardens

5,000 students

15 staff, paid garden educations, 2 service members
$730,000 budgetGrants/Foundations/Donors, School district funding, School funding

Clear roles & responsibilities
Their model replicates the school model (equity in mind) their lead educator – holds the curriculum and planning and their associate educator position answers less answer to every question at the garden site, some programming , americor positions hold library positions. Strong Retention rate and they offer PD for staff and educators. 

Coordination with Volunteer Groups

Roving network gardener (americorps) to support garden educators with gardening at 40 hrs/week. This staff member coordinates individual volunteers (who come weekly) and volunteer groups. 





large capital projects – getting bids from contractors, lags in the purchasing process. Also scheduling changes and school leaders understanding the time requirements of garden maintenance when scheduling. 

Advice: don’t grow gardens beyond the management capacity you can sustain long term.