By Nancy Crawley
Jessica Hart takes over as education director at an important pivot point for Meijer Gardens.
The 34-year-old suburban Boston native becomes the first new education leader in 17 years — just as The Gardens launches a major expansion this fall.
That includes construction of a 20,000-square-foot Covenant Learning Center that dramatically increases classroom space for the tens of thousands of school students who visit every year. Last year, 40,000 students alone streamed through the halls.
Starting her new job June 1, Jess, as she prefers to be called, succeeded Linda Thompson who retired after many years with the Gardens.
“I’m so excited about the opportunities that will come with the new education center,” Jess said. “It means a tripling of space that allows us to increase classroom activities and incorporate educational technology in new ways.”
The Learning Center will be a merging and expansion of the lower level classrooms, pushing space out toward the wetlands.
Jess is already familiar with the Gardens’ educational programming. For 2 1/2 years, she was indoor education manager, supervising scores of docents and Bus Buddy volunteers and the whole range of indoor activities for school groups.
With a staff of 12, Jess now manages a department that oversees outdoor school visits, summer camps and Children’s Gardens events, classes for adults and families, bus trips, the various lecture series, programming for sculpture exhibits, the library and the many weekend and special events programs.
As the educational component grows to serve more students, “we hope to expand that staff in the years to come,” she said.
Jess comes with a strong background in education. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature at Boston University, she obtained a Massachusetts teaching license.
She traveled the country, working for a private firm specializing in literacy strategies. Before coming to Michigan, she lived in Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming and Alaska, training teachers in literacy skills. “It was great fun to travel, see new places and meet people,” she said.
She enjoys being outdoors, loves hiking and kayaking, and making annual trips to Maine to savor the rugged terrain, not mention the fresh seafood. She is also a gardener, putting in a large vegetable plot every summer. And in the fall, she gets busy putting up decorations to welcome trick or treaters at Halloween. “I have a new theme every year.”
Working at the Gardens has been a great fit for her, she said. “I love being here, it’s such an inspiring, exciting place with a fabulous team of talented and dedicated people.”