Agriculture education sees growth
October 15, 2011
CARBONDALE, Colorado – Adriana Perez spends part of her summers helping on her grandfather’s farm in Chihuahua, Mexico. So when she had the opportunity to learn more about growing food at her hometown high school in Carbondale, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I’ve always been around farms and plants, and it’s something I like doing,” said the Roaring Fork High School senior.
“Having this opportunity right here at my school is pretty cool,” she said of Roaring Fork High’s greenhouse science classroom.
The greenhouse, a 42-foot diameter grow dome funded through private donations and built with volunteer labor two years ago, accommodates the school’s agricultural biology class. The class, taught by science teacher Hadley Hentschel, is offered to RFHS juniors and seniors as part of the regular science curriculum.
“This is something that used to be pretty common in schools,” Hentschel said. “It would be great if we could see something like this in every school. It’s hands-on science learning that you can’t always get in the regular classroom.”
In addition to the science class, RFHS students can take part in an independent work-study program by helping to manage the greenhouse operation and harvesting food to supplement the high school’s cafeteria offerings.
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Perez is one of four student interns working and earning credits to manage the greenhouse this school year.
She and another of this year’s interns, fellow senior Elizabeth Ritchie, are also earning money for college through an Americorps program arranged by one of the greenhouse project’s avid supporters, Illene Pevec.
“I was able to get last year’s class approved for Americorps service learning, which allows the students’ class time to be counted toward voluntary service hours,” Pevec explained.
“It had to be for something that was benefiting the whole school, not just themselves, and the fact that the kids are growing food for the school lunch program qualified,” she said.
Perez has already completed her 300 hours of volunteer work, earning roughly $1,300 toward college. Ritchie is nearing completion of her hours, and one student who graduated from RFHS last spring and is now attending the University of Colorado, Ixchel Muniz, also completed the program.
“It’s not very much money, but it is something,” Pevec said. “And it’s an important part of why we wanted to start the gardening program here in the first place.”
The Americorps rules have since changed, she said, and the service program no longer includes hands-on gardening work.
But it’s the kind of opportunity that having the school-based greenhouse can open up for students interested in pursuing agricultural-related degrees and careers.
The greenhouse and associated science curriculum at the Carbondale school is one of a handful of ag-science related programs happening in some area schools.
Sopris Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Mark Browning has begun introducing his students to science through gardening as part of a cooperative effort with the Mountain Valley Developmental Services greenhouse next to the school in Glenwood Springs.
His students are learning how to make compost this year, and are studying how plants grow in different kinds of compost. When they get to the point of growing food, it too will be used in the school cafeteria.
Some math teachers in Roaring Fork Re-1 schools have also employed what’s called “growbotics” as part of their teaching, Re-1 Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Brad Ray said.
“Science and math are where a lot of our folks are working on some new, creative ideas,” Ray said. “Any time teachers and students can find hands-on opportunities to get out and do these kinds of things, we never scoff at that. It’s good, rich learning.”
But RFHS has the “corner on the market” when it comes to direct agricultural education, he said.
Yampah Mountain High School, an alternative high school located in Glenwood Springs through cooperation with area school districts, was the first of the local public schools to have a grow dome. It, along with the more recent one at RFHS, were made possible through the efforts of the Woody Creek-based Fat City Farms.
The organization’s director, Michael Thompson, has a vision to eventually fund and build a greenhouse at every school in the Roaring Fork Valley.
It’s part of a return to community-based agriculture that once was a cornerstone of American culture, and the local food movement that has been catching on in the valley and across the country.
“Our thinking is that our future, and their future, will be very much involved in food growing,” Thompson said in a 2009 interview with the Post Independent when the Yampah High grow dome was completed.
“Every kid in school should have to walk no more than a couple hundred feet to learn the growing arts,” he said.
Thompson is joined by supporters like Pevec, who recently completed her doctoral dissertation through the University of Colorado titled “Healthy Harvest.” Her dissertation, which she will defend later this month, focuses on the benefits of gardening for children, especially adolescents.
“It’s great for kids to be exposed to growing food,” said Pevec, who interviewed students at RFHS, Yampah, Colorado Rocky Mountain School and another school-based program in Boulder for her research.
“All of the kids I interviewed just go on and on about how happy gardening makes them feel, and how it contributes to their well-being, both for themselves and the planet,” she said.
Perez and Ritchie are prime examples.
“I just like growing things, it’s interesting,” said Ritchie, who is thinking of studying landscape architecture in college. “It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, and it’s nice to be able to eat what you grow. It’s like getting a reward for your hard work.”
Added Perez, “It relieves my stress during the school day, I guess that’s one of the reasons I like it.”
In Mexico, she said, family farms are still quite common.
“Most of them are just for people to have something to live off of, not just for profit,” she said. “There’s a lot to be learned here about how that can be applied at a more local level. I think people know about it, they just don’t do it.”
Pevec notes that the American Planning Association has recommended “food security” be included in local community plans, and that towns big and small include places for urban gardening.
“I suggest that school lands should be considered in that, because they’re already publicly owned and they’re usually centrally located,” she said.
Pevec would also like to see agriculture education be included in the formal curriculum policies in public schools.
“It’s not part of the regular education program now, so it can be one of those things that comes and goes depending on the teachers and school administrators,” she said. “I’d like to see it become policy so that can’t happen.”
According to RFHS greenhouse supervisor and teacher Hentschel, last school year the gardens produced on average about five to eight pounds of lettuce, five pounds of tomatoes and three to four pounds of cucumbers per week.
“It’s not enough to fully stock the salad bar, but we do have more fresh produce than we would have had otherwise,” he said. “The students also made pesto, and the kitchen staff made some different salsas.
“We try to do crops that the cafeteria will really use,” Hentschel said. “And we have some smaller crops that the [ag biology] students can just enjoy themselves.”
The class included close to 50 students the first year when the grow dome was being built, and was scaled back to a more manageable 24 students last year. This year, with the increase in the student-teacher ratio due to the Re-1 budget cuts, there are 28 students in the class.
“It’s just good that the students can learn how to grow food, and where it comes from,” Hentschel said. “And it gives them a good way to learn inquiry skills.”