Students carefully look over tomatoes and peppers in the two raised garden beds behind Rocky Mountain High School, picking vegetables that are ripe and ready to make a spicy salsa. Through gardening, these students are learning valuable job skills while preparing delicious food for staff at Rocky.
The garden, created through a Boy Scout service project a few years ago, is cared for by 80 students in the Alternative Cooperative Education (ACE) program at Rocky. ACE is a high school vocational program giving students with transitional needs the skills they need to be successful after high school.
“The goal is to provide students with hands-on experiences,” says Kim Nigro, ACE coordinator at Rocky, adding that the garden offers students several types of learning opportunities. “We talk about the benefits of the garden, the emotional and physical benefits. We talk about food safety, health and nutrition.”
Students plant, care for and harvest vegetables like Swiss chard, kale, spinach, beets, chives and herbs, as well as several varieties of tomatoes and peppers. In the past, watering the garden was an issue, especially during the summer months when school wasn’t in session. The watering challenge was solved when ACE received a $1,569 SPIE (Supporting Partnerships in Innovative Education) grant that allowed them to purchase a solar water tank and pump.
“Before we had to drag hoses across the parking lot to keep the garden growing,” said Nigro. “Now it’s on a drip line so the garden is automatically watered.”
The garden’s produce is used in the Lobo Bistro, a school café that offers lunch, prepared by ACE students, to staff on Thursdays. The crops are also sold to school staff and to local businesses.
During the gardening and food production process, Nigro says they point out how the students’ experiences and tasks directly relate to employment skills like problem-solving, time management, acting as a leader and working with a team.
“We make those skills transparent to them. We teach to what employers are looking for,” she said. “We provide direct feedback to them to get them ready for that next step with interviewing and working after high school.”
“When they have hands-on experiences and with some authentic feedback, they realize that they can do things like work the cash register,” she added.
The garden and Bistro are just two of several businesses that employ ACE students. Other school businesses include the Rock Stop (the school store), Rocky Designs (a laser engraving business), and Rocky Wraps (making and selling healthy wraps to students and staff). ACE students are paid for working outside of class time.
“Kids have to be empowered. We want them to know that if you’re a hard worker and willing to get out there, with some effort things can happen for you,” said Nigro.