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This Month’s Learning Innovation: Fort Cherry Grows Great Students

It seems like any typical high school classroom. The students sit in a lab, discussing soil composition and the effects of run-off on the environment. Later, they tackle a little biology, botany, even some animal husbandry. But then, they step outside…into a greenhouse containing a tank of young tilapia raised from hatchlings, or a second greenhouse with everything from seedlings to full grown, gorgeous begonias. Still other students move over to the rabbit hutches and pull out luxuriously furry bunnies, while one lucky young man lifts a hen from its roost to find two warm, just-hatched eggs.

For the students in Jodie Hoover’s agricultural and environmental science classes at Fort Cherry High School in McDonald, it’s all part of a regular school day. “They have the opportunity to study plants, animals and the environment. So they get a little bit of each, agriculture and environment,” through these hands-on classes, according to the educator.

“We’ve expanded over the years,” Jodie, small and animated, continues. “We have two greenhouses. One that has the typical spring plants in it, and another that has aquaponics, where we’re going to be growing plants from the fish waste, we just got that started. We also have a garden out back and we have some chickens that we’re raising. Backyard chickens are very popular right now so we added that to our program. And we have about 15 rabbits that we’re raising and breeding the rabbits so that students get a chance to see them reproduce and market their product.”

Fort Cherry ninth through twelfth graders can take an agricultural science class with Jodie, to not only learn the science behind these disciplines, but gain practical experience. “I know that not everyone’s going into a career in agriculture but I hope that they become better consumers,” Jodie says of her students. “That’s what I tell them a lot of times, that at least they know where their meat comes from, they know where their eggs come from, they know how much hard work goes into it. About a quarter of our students go on to study some sort of agricultural science or environmental science in college or tech school.”

Fort Cherry has made agricultural and environmental science a priority. They actually begin teaching students about these disciplines early – from kindergarten on. “Our ninth through 12th grade program is just one piece of a program that we call Ranger Harvest,” explains Fort Cherry School District Director of Curriculum Dr. Trisha Craig.

“The agricultural science program is one piece, FFA -- Future Farmers of America -- is one piece and our Grow it to Go program, for kids in grades kindergarten through 4, is another. The k-4 program is something new to us this year; in partnership with South Fayette School District and a Sprout Grant, we’re fortunate enough to participate in extending our environmental science program to the younger grades. So we have our high school students who are working with our elementary students to teach them about environmental science as well as sustainability.”

The high schoolers have been working with the younger students “on projects like comparing soil-based learning and growing to hydroponics; they’re growing flowers, they’re growing plants, and they’re having a great time doing it,” Dr. Craig says.

“Our programs incorporate STEAM content (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in this project-based learning,” Dr. Craig continues. “So as students are learning about the aquaponics system, they have to measure, they have identify the appropriate nutrients; they have to make sure the fish are fed. With our plants, they have to monitor the growth, so you have environmental science aspects as well as leadership. Once the plants grow, they have to determine what they’re going to do with those crops. Some of them may be used in the cafeteria, some of them may be sold to the community, some of them may be just shared with the community.

“And the arts come in because they have to be creative in their sales. They have to actually sell the product to the community, so, it’s a great opportunity for them to exercise their technical skills as well as using their creativity,” she adds.

They also get to use their creative skills in the horticulture class. The afternoon we visited, students were unpacking crates of flowers to prepare boutonnieres and flower arrangements for the next evening’s FFA banquet.

“In horticulture, most of the winter, we study things like soils, how it affects the environment, we talk a lot about run off, and, you know, farmers are responsible for a lot of that so we have to make sure that they’re educated on that. We also have a floral design class that they do a lab almost every day,” Jodie explains. “We’ve done a couple of weddings this year and baby showers and that sort of thing. So they’re picking and choosing what they want to learn more about.”

And they’re having fun. “I’m in a horticulture class so I come in here everyday,” one young student relates as we walk into the greenhouse. “In the beginning of the year we planted all the plants -- tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, geraniums, hanging baskets and impatiens. I like the farm life, but I live in the middle of McDonald, so I’m not in the middle of a farm. This is more of a hands-on class.”

Her words are echoed by student after student. One young man exclaims, “it’s a lot cooler than just a regular class because we get to come down here and do stuff you normally don’t get to do in school.” And as a fellow student bends down in the henhouse to lift a hen and find a freshly laid egg, he says, “it’s different from regular school sitting in the classroom all day. And it’s nice to be outside.”


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