When Ron Benbow became a substitute teacher at Highland Child Development Center (CDC), he saw Oakland as a temporary stop, figuring he would soon return to Sacramento. That was 34 years ago.
“Oakland stuck with me,” says Ron today. “It seemed to be the home for me. The children were so diverse and wonderful. So I never moved back. I just never left Oakland.”
He also never left the work: he’s been teaching preschool full-time in Oakland ever since. After Highland he went to Emerson CDC, teaching there for 24 years before moving to Manzanita CDC, where he’s now in his seventh year.
What about early childhood education has kept him so committed since 1983? “Preschoolers just have such open minds,” says Ron. “They’re like sponges and they just grasp everything.”
The littlest green thumbs
The three- and four-year olds in his class have ample opportunity to let those open minds roam, especially in Manzanita CDC’s garden, the “outdoor classroom” that is Ron’s labor of love.
“Kids are very excited about the garden,” says Ron. “When they step outside, they’re running for the watering cans, grabbing shovels, policing the weeds. They really like to get dirty. The way I see it, if they don’t leave the garden dirty, I haven’t done my job.”
With the recent addition of two garden beds thanks to an Ed Fund A to Z mini-grant, the space is flourishing and his young learners are mastering the art and science of gardening: planting seeds, spacing out plants to give them room to grow, then watering, tending, and watching until they’re ready to harvest.
“The garden is just a wonderful place,” he says. “In Oakland students grow up around so much cement, with not a lot of open space. This is a green space they can take care of, have ownership of. It’s all entirely up to them, with minor supervision.”
This sense of ownership and connection, Ron says, turns kids into natural veggie eaters. “Sometimes parents will ask, ‘How can I get my child to eat vegetables?’ Well, when they’re doing the gardening, it’s very simple: they’ve grown it, they take care of it, they eat it right off the plant! They’re building better eating habits: fresh fruits and vegetables, especially organic—organic is all we grow here.”
They’ve grown a bounty. “Kids have planted green beans, carrots, broccoli, chard, zucchini, cucumbers, cabbage, sugar peas, and we’ve got a pumpkin vine growing,” says Ron. “And we’ve still got a little room left to grow.” He then helps them build meals out of their harvests, whipping up a big stir fry or salad.
Ron also sees time in the garden as a calming experience. “Especially for students with behavior challenges, or who’ve suffered trauma, getting them out in the open air and mud and water just seems to soothe them,” he says.
“They need help, I’m there. I need help, they’re here.”
When the materials for the school’s new garden beds arrived, so did parents from Ron’s classroom, quickly pitching in to set up the planters and fill them with soil and mulch.
“Our parents and families are wonderful,” he says. “They need help, I’m there. If I need help, they’re here. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”
All of the families have Ron’s cell phone number, and he encourages them to text him, no matter the hour or day. If a student is in the hospital, he will sit with Spanish-speaking parents and help with translation. He also stays in touch throughout the school day.
“Keeping communication open with parents is so important,” Ron says. “From day one, I start taking pictures and text them to parents. That way, they can see their child is happy, having fun, learning. Parents can go to work with their mind at ease that their child is fine.”
“I could retire, but…”
After 34 years of teaching, retirement has naturally crossed Ron’s mind. “I was going to do it this June,” he says. “But our principal Caroline Jones said, ‘Why don’t you stick around another year? I don’t think you’re ready to go yet.’ I think she was right.”
For one, he’s excited about the direction of OUSD’s Early Childhood Education program, praising Director Christie Anderson and the rest of the team, as well as Principal Jones and fellow Manzanita CDC staff. And then there are full-circle stories like this: one of Ron’s students from his days at Emerson CDC is now a mom, and her daughter is in Ron’s class.
“I could retire…but what would I do with my free time? I’d just come back to volunteer here anyway. So why not stay and teach as long as I can. When you’ve been teaching wonderful Oakland kids for so many years, it’s pretty hard to leave.”
As he said about the garden, there’s still a little room left to grow.
You can help us continue supporting inspiring teachers like Ron by donating to the A to Z Fund!