In keeping with the spirit of both the acronym and its inherent mission, Saugerties Grows keeps growing and growing. The acronym stands for Graduation Requirements through Occupational Work Study. Initially intended as a program for students with special needs, the hands-on educational initiative has since expanded to offer opportunities for other students as well.
If you’ve driven past the Saugerties High School campus anytime since winter break, you may have spotted a small building where there wasn’t one before. Eventually that will become a farmstand, the public face of Saugerties Grows. The program will provide students at the high school a wide range of opportunities to fulfill the CDOS (Career Development and Occupational Studies) requirements.
The initiative was the brainchild of Deborah Nuzzo, the district’s transition coordinator and a lead teacher in special education. Nuzzo first heard about the possibility of a state grant during a meeting of the Ulster County Transition Council in the summer of 2015. Though there were only six weeks remaining to file the paperwork, she began working with Lissa Jilek, the district’s business manager. They completed the grant application.
“They spent a ton of hours just putting down concepts, and they were running it past me,” said district superintendent Seth Turner. “We weren’t getting the money, so we didn’t think anything would come of it. Then we found out we were going to get a grant. And it was like, ‘Oh, wow.’”
The expansion to allow for participation of all students hasn’t come at the expense of students with disabilities, Nuzzo made clear. “There are students in our district and every district that have serious disabilities,” she said. “This is a way that everybody can be involved. There’s a whole financial component to it. There’s business. There’s how are they going to display and package their product. There’s public relations. There are going to be flyers and posters made. They’re going to make flow charts. There’s all sort of academic components to this besides making some salsa.”
A natural fit
For Nuzzo, the focus of the substantial grant was a natural fit for Saugerties.
“I’ve been in this district for 18 years, and from the point I got here I thought, We’ve got a lot going for us, but look at this land. If we had nothing else going for us, we have a beautiful campus,” she said. “And that’s why I always had it in my head that we could do something with agriculture and a greenhouse and a garden.”
The grant, awarded in January 2016, was for $744,520. It was intended to give students with mild to moderate disabilities the chance to earn CDOS credentials while working in a hands-on environment, covering areas like environmental science, technology, family and consumer science, economics, web development, advertising and art, and other academic disciplines.
“It was very appealing for people to say they were going to do STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, but when that is conceptual and not practical, there’s a population of students that get lost,” Turner explained. “And they’re the ones that can practically apply those skills and have lucrative careers. Pen and paper tests sometimes miss out on a huge population of students who could otherwise exemplify their knowledge with hands-on approaches.”
While the initial plan was for the program to benefit students with disabilities, shortly after the district learned it would receive the grant the New York State Education Department expanded the CDOS credential to include all students. Earning a CDOS credit can replace a Regents’ exam. Rather than sitting through five different tests, a student participating in Saugerties Grows can instead take four Regents’ exams.
School officials realized they could include a great many more students in the program, many of whom were already working on projects that align with Saugerties Grows.
“It was like someone put the chocolate and peanut butter together,” Turner said, referencing the epiphany at the end of old Reese’s ads. “We’ve already got these good things going on in our science program, in our business program, in our technology program. How can we benefit more students and come up with a coordinated plan?”
The farmstand and future greenhouse will work with an existing garden and a successful maple-tapping effort (the students quickly sell out of maple syrup. The farmstand will need changes before it’s ready for business.
“It’s going to be part of the tech-class curriculum,” Nuzzo said. “They’re building barriers along the bottom so we don’t house every critter in the community underneath it. And we’re hoping to expand in the spring with a deck.”
The planned greenhouse
The greenhouse is still in the works, though its timeline is unclear.
“The one hiccup we’ve had with this is in building a greenhouse,” Turner said. “There was some money in the grant that accounted for that, but what happens in the real world though is that when you’re going to have a facility like a greenhouse and students are going to use it you have to meet a much higher standard and get State Ed approval, and also likely need a voter referendum because it’s a school facility. We’re doing some work to bring that to the community in the near future. That’s going to be a key part to having everything function, and we’re trying to do that at no cost to the taxpayers.”
Though part of the original grant application, the greenhouse specs underwent significant changes that may also have slowed the process down.
“Once we got rolling with this and we got the science people involved, they came up with this really fabulous plan for a twelve-month greenhouse that had state-of-the art solar panels and radiant heat, and a classroom within it,” Nuzzo said. “Tilapia tanks where the water would feed and fertilize the plants. But since it wasn’t written into the original grant, we’re having to get waivers. And that’s the least of the problem, because we’re talking about a permanent building.”
Saugerties Grows isn’t idling while awaiting word on the greenhouse. Instead, it’s extending its reach within the high school to incorporate as many academic disciplines and reach as many students as possible.
“Ultimately we’re hoping to not only be selling what we grow [in the garden and greenhouse], but also things made in other classes such as home and careers,” Nuzzo said. “They’re planning on making jellies and jams, and salsa and seasonal wreaths.”
According to Turner, the district is also talking to a local college to allow for Saugerties Grows students to make the transition to the next level of education easier. “It’s my hope that we’re going to have an articulated agreement with SUNY Ulster so that our students can seamlessly become enrolled in some of their courses,” Turner said, “again with the mindset that through all of this we’re gearing the instruction of these students based on the practical job skills that they’re going to need in our community.”
Nuzzo and Lisa Kappler, assistant principal at the junior high, will host a CDOS presentation for parents in the high school library next Thursday, February 9 at 7 p.m. The program will include but will not be limited to a discussion of Saugerties Grows.