Education Challenge / Blog

Sandbox Teacher Aims to Reverse Obesity Trend in Lawrence

When Orlando Torres walks around Lawrence, he can't help but notice the presence of fast food in the community. "You are constantly bombarded with images and messages of fast food restaurants and unhealthy eating practices," he says. Whether it's McDonald's, Wendy's or Taco Bell, residents don't seem to have good options for purchasing healthy and inexpensive food. Sadly, Lawrence has the top obesity rate in Massachusetts. When it comes to students, 46% of them in the city are either obese or overweight.

Orlando, a fourth grade teacher at Guilmette Elementary School in Lawrence, was compelled to do something about this alarming statistic. "I wanted to work with my students to educate them about their eating habits and to live a healthier lifestyle." Rather than just teaching about it in the classroom,  he decided to take a more hands-on approach. He applied to the Sandbox Education Innovation Challenge, a program that gives teachers in the Lawrence Public Schools a small grant to try out innovative approaches inside and outside the classroom. "I submitted a project called 'The Best Part of the Planet Earth' which aims to build raised beds on school grounds with the intention of selling fresh fruits and vegetables to students' families and farmers markets at an affordable price." There are projects like this at other schools across the nation, but what makes it innovative is that Orlando works with at-risk youth (individuals who exhibit academic, behavioral, or emotional problems). 

Orlando was selected as one of the finalists for the Sandbox Challenge and used the money to purchase materials to build 4 raised beds, garden supplies, and seedlings at his school. He and ten of his students partnered with Groundwork Lawrence to execute the project. For many of these youngsters, this was the first time in their lives growing crops. Orlando saw multiple successes throughout the process. Not only did these students learn how to grow crops and change their eating habits, but he also saw an increase in their self-esteem.

When it came time to sell the crops at the farmers market, students learned how to market the products. They ended up making $50 in profit! Since starting the project, there has been a lot of momentum for Orlando and his students. In August, Congressman Joe Kennedy visited Lawrence as part of his Massachusetts STEM Tour, and Orlando and two of his students were chosen to talk about the project. Earlier this month, Orlando took third place at the Sandbox All Ideas Welcome Pitch Contest, and was awarded a $500 grant. The project even got a mention in the Eagle Tribune. 

Orlando hopes to continue the project in the near future. "To change the obesity trend in Lawrence, I know we still have more work to do. Every spring, I hope to get more students involved, and help make this project citywide."

Sandbox Teacher Innovates through the Arts

Eric Allshouse has always loved making art. He loved it even more when he saw the power in sharing it with others. “Until I began teaching art, I did not realize how fun and exciting it was,” says Eric. “To help unleash the creativity in an individual is a very empowering process.  It helps them imagine a whole new world that they never knew before.”

Eric has been teaching art to students for the last five years. He started out as a drawing teacher at the Essex Art Center. Currently, he teaches visual arts at the Humanities and Leadership Development High School in Lawrence. Last August, he heard about the Sandbox Education Innovation Challenge, a program that gives teachers in the Lawrence Public Schools small grants to try out innovative approaches inside and outside the classroom.  At the time, he was teaching a course on mural painting, and thought there could be a way to connect his passion of teaching arts to the Sandbox program. “A few years back when I was in Philadelphia, I remember seeing their Mural Arts Program where youth from around the city had the opportunity to create murals in run down areas. From that, I wanted to give students in Lawrence an opportunity to transform vacant lots and graffiti plagued areas into beautiful murals that would inspire the community.”

Eric applied to the Sandbox and received $494 to turn his idea of the Lawrence Mural Program into a reality.  He used the funding to purchase paint, brushes, and ladders. He teamed up with the Essex Art Center as well as Valley Works, an employment center that draws on a federal grant to pay the teens wages for their work. “Eleven students and I worked six 25 hour weeks to create two concrete handball wall murals (16'x20') and two large brick wall murals (9'x70') and (13'x90'). From picking the themes to painting the murals, the students have driven the whole process!”

Students have picked various subject matters that are meaningful to them including Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah, and Robert Frost. "This summer I decided to join the project,” says Cindy Avila, a student at the Business, Management, and Finance School in Lawrence. “We had a meeting, sketched everything out, and picked which artists we would depict on the murals. We are doing this to make the city look better and eliminate graffiti.”

Since these murals have been up, there has been no graffiti in these areas, and community members have thanked Eric and his students for their efforts. The project even caught the attention of the Eagle Tribune who wrote up a great article about the mural project. Eric plans to keep this program running for years to come and get more students in Lawrence involved. “This was an unforgettable opportunity for me and these students,” says Eric. “The project will help them tap into their creativity while having the opportunity to earn wages to help themselves and their families. In the long-term we hope the murals will help instill a sense of community pride within Lawrence”

If you would like to learn more about the Lawrence Mural Program, check out this great video by Lawrence Public Schools documenting the project:


Congressman Kennedy Visits Lawrence as part of STEM Tour 2013

Congressman Joe Kennedy recently launched a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Tour of Massachusetts where he has been visiting businesses, schools, and programs across the Commonwealth that highlight the state’s leadership in STEM education and workforce development.

On August 21st, Congressman Kennedy visited SPARK Academy in Lawrence to see the STEM innovation happening in the city. He heard from various Sandbox participants including teachers in our Sandbox Education Challenge such as Orlando Torres (fourth grade teacher at Guilmette Elementary School) and Jamie Maguire and Susan Casey, (third grade teachers at South Lawrence East Elementary School). They talked about the innovations they were creating for their students inside and outside the classroom.



Then Sandbox Accelerator Finalist Karen Mahon talked about her venture Balefire Labs and how it can have a positive impact on STEM education, speficially with apps. Mary Beth Burwood discussed Lowell Sprouts, her Sandbox Catalyst project, and how hands on experience can be a powerful tool in promoting STEM with students.






Also in attendance were key community stakeholders including Jeff Riley, the Superintendent of the Lawrence Public Schools and Desh & Jaishree Deshpande of the Deshpande Foundation.




Click here to see pictures! 

Click here to read the Eagle Tribune article!