Learning to grow

Students of Grant Union High School prepare for a sustainable future

At Grant Union High School’s GEO Environmental Science and Design Academy, students such as Dao Lor, 18, learn about growing, harvesting and cooking their own food.

At Grant Union High School’s GEO Environmental Science and Design Academy, students such as Dao Lor, 18, learn about growing, harvesting and cooking their own food.

Photo By Sena christian

In an environmental horticulture class at Grant Union High School, a room full of students busied themselves at their desks. The assignment: Create an environmental project, write a grant proposal and prepare a presentation to a funding agency.

One group of three young women developed a campus-beautification project. Another team wants to implement a recycling program.

“It’s going to teach people how and what to recycle, and the dangers of not recycling and all the waste that produces,” said Eric Phomthevy, 15.

These students are part of Grant’s GEO Environmental Science and Design Academy. The program, now in its fourth year, offers classes in biology, environmental horticulture, landscape and environmental design, and environmental science. Students learn about chemistry, sustainability, nutrient cycles and plant biology. In health class, they study nutrition by preparing fresh produce in the kitchen classroom.

In the garden, students dig beds, plant seeds, harvest, do plant identification, soil testing and composting. The teenagers produce salsa, which they sell at local farmers’ markets and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Seniors take an economics of business class to learn about marketing, sales, financing and operations for their salsa company.

“It’s awesome,” said Mercedes Guillen, 15, a student at the academy. The program has 130 pupils, from a population of 2,100, who complete a simple application process to be accepted.

“We’re looking for students who are on the edge, for those students who could go either way, could graduate or not graduate,” said academy coordinator Arron White. “We want to find these students and give them focus, give them purpose.”

Youth from Del Paso Heights started the campus garden in 1999, naming it Garden of Ethnic American Treasures, or GO EAT.

Nowadays, teenagers grow beans, garlic, peas, broccoli and more here. Fruit trees and plants surround a patch of native grasses. Garden-based lessons focus on healthy-eating habitats, meal preparation using fresh produce and culturally diverse recipes using ingredients harvested from the garden.

“I like the academy,” said Dao Lor, an 18-year-old student. “I like getting to harvest and cook the food. I get to interact not just with my peers but with adults, and I get an insight of what’s happening outside of school.”

A group of GEO students teaches cooking classes during an after-school program for fourth- to sixth-graders. In January’s session, they helped kids chop up and sauté vegetables and make grilled-cheese sandwiches.

The academy relies heavily on partnerships, including with the Health Education Council, which funds the nutrition and cooking program. GEO also partners with the Center for Land-Based Learning and Soil Born Farms, and receives funding from the California Department of Education, United Way and other groups to supply the $65,000 to $80,000 it takes to run the program. The money pays for equipment, part-time coordinators—all former GEO youth—and field trips, which are integral to the academy’s mission.

“The academy model is centered on the idea that school takes place on campus, but there is so much to learn outside,” said garden coordinator Ann Marie Kennedy.

For one project in White’s environmental-science class, students divide into teams for “Delta Dilemma,” each representing different groups invested in the San Joaquin Delta: farmers, environmentalists, the government, residents of Los Angeles, Pesticide Watch folks and others. The teams present their perspectives to the rest of the class to demonstrate the complexity of environmental problems.

“These academies fill the void left by shop classes and performing arts that have been cut because of the emphasis on testing,” White said. “Students need a purpose for why they’re learning something. When they see the connections, they excel.”

Last year, 100 percent of the students who stuck with the GEO academy graduated. “I’m very proud of that,” White said.