BY SHARON MICHALIK, PHOTOGRAPHY BY HAROLD BRAMPTON & JORDAN WILLIAMS
There is a deeply-loved plot of ground on 11th Street, adjacent to C.C. Washington Academy and Rosenwald High School in Panama City. Nestled among the grass and heaps of compost, approximately 50 Rosenwald students monitor and tend the plants on any given school day. In Florida’s 90-degree summer heat, they proudly sport old-school letterman jackets that acknowledge their membership in Future Farmers of America, a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program with the goal of “helping make classroom instruction come to life through realistic, hands-on applications.”
Jimmy Owen, the veteran CTE teacher who helped the crew of 15- to 18-year-olds build their field of dreams on 11th Street, had a vision when he came to the school five years ago but, he says the students have far exceeded his aspirations. “They really put all this together themselves,” he says, surveying the hydroponic lettuce structures, the oversized tomato towers and the row-upon-row of neatly planted vegetables. While growing a collective garden, the Rosenwald students also have carte blanche to plant a 10 foot by 10 foot plot of their own with vegetables they have carefully choosen. The result is a field just bursting with color, plant life, and laughter. More importantly, it’s a field bursting at the seams with food the students have grown.
“The students are out here every day picking what they’re growing,” Owen says. “They really like to just come out here at lunchtime with a grocery bag and pick a salad for lunch. I’m amazed at how many students want salad from our garden for lunch … it’s fast food for them but a different fast food.”
While FFA has been considered an extra-curricular activity in the past, Owen says “CTE student organizations are required to be an integral part of every CTE program’s curriculum.” As such, the tenets of FFA are interwoven into all his lessons and goals for his students.
By the time the end of the school year rolls around, the crops are ripe for picking and Owen and his students are harvesting several varieties of tomatoes and lettuce along with cucumbers, grapefruit, tangerines, pears, nectarines, peaches, corn, squash, and other fruits and vegetables.
The garden, he says, has been good for the school and the community. “There are gardens popping up everywhere around here now since we got started,” he says, pointing to neighborhood gardens across the street from the school in both directions. “The kids are taking this idea home, and the teachers are, too, and they’re taking this food home. We’re growing food that our students and their families can use for dinner, and the kids are learning how to grow it by themselves. They are taking ownership.”
And along the way the students, Owen notes, are learning about pride, responsibility, maturity and teamwork … lessons that are hard to teach in a classroom but are invaluable in life. “This is where it gets real out here,” he says, “where they learn about hard work and about working with each other and about what they can really accomplish and how they can take care of themselves.”
The self-sustaining aspect appeals to all the students. Jasun Hamilton, a recent graduate of Rosenwald High School nods with enthusiasm “Everyone should know how to grow vegetables. If you’re totally dependent on grocery stores then you’re vulnerable. I’ve grown my own dill, my own corn and cabbage, and I understand what it takes to make that work. I can depend on myself.”
Before joining the class, Jasun says he had some basic landscaping skills and had even made money mowing lawns and working in other people’s yards. None of that, he says, compares to this experience. “This gave purpose to my skills. You have to research and learn and find your niche here.”
While learning to work in the heat and the dirt are important lessons, Jasun says that the gardening project taught him something far more valuable. “This is like taking care of a child,” he reflects. “You need to know what that little plant needs, and you need to know how to take care of it and how to provide for it. It’s a huge responsibility.”
“We are allowed to plant what we want on our own plots, but we had to research how to plant it, how to drop it, how far apart to plant and what sorts of plants would like to grow here,” explains 18-year-old Adarius Potter, Jasun’s classmate. “And you have to be patient and diligent and help each other out when it’s not going well. You have to be willing to ask for help when you need it.”
And digging in the dirt is not all fun and games, according to Adarius. “There’s a lot of science that comes along with this,” he says. “We had to learn about the eight different soil types and which plants need which soil and we had to learn about the nitrogen and phosphorus and potassium levels and how to manage them.” As they explain the curriculum behind their production, the students proudly walk the rows of vegetables showing off what they planted, what’s ready to harvest and what’s about to bloom. Others stroll by, arms laden with veggies to take home to mom. Cries of “check this out,” and “look at the size of this,” echo from all corners of the field as Owen’s students harvest their crops at the end of a school day.
Rosenwald, a second-chance high school, enrolls students from the entire district. The garden has become a common bond. “We formed a team and locked in on a common goal. Our single goal was to get this garden going and to give back to the people. You can’t get something like this off the ground without being nurturing and responsible and we’ve learned that by taking care of this,” Jasun explains.
This is music to the ears of Jimmy Owen. He has dedicated his professional life to bringing agricultural science to the classroom and the work has been hard. Students enrolled in Owen’s Agritechnology Career Academy (just one of the many CTE academies available to Rosenwald students) now have the chance to complete industry certifications as a result of coursework closely aligned to industry standards. Those certifications can help pave the way to higher-paying jobs after graduation.
“I’m really proud of that,” Owen remarks, “but I’m more proud of the lessons the students are learning about healthy eating, about being responsible for growing what you eat and about seeing the long-term health impacts.”
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