RPS Program Gives Students Chance to Use Green Thumb


Pictured are greenhouses from Greenhouse Megastore, the same company that Ralston Public Schools purchased their greenhouse. This is an example of what Ralston’s greenhouse will look like upon completion slated for the end of October. This will be used for a new agriculture program. (Screenshots from Greenhouse Megastore via Ralston Public Schools)
By 
Derek Noehren
The Daily Record

It’s a question we all face at some point in our lives: What do you want to do when you grow up?

Perhaps no other group feels this question in such a real way than high school students. After all, it’s a tough ask for a teenager to identify his or her career in preparation for “the real world” while still trying to navigate being a kid.

Ralston Public School officials wanted to give their students more life experiences and expose them to different avenues of possible interest.

Since 2012, the Nebraska Department of Education’s reVISION process was instituted in an effort to improve and strengthen career and technical education in Nebraska.

The six CTE career fields designed by the state are: business, marketing and management; computer science and technology; health sciences; human sciences and family consumer sciences; skilled and technical sciences; and agriculture, food and natural resources.

RPS already offered five of the six CTE programs, but feedback showed interest in adding the sixth.

“This came as a result of an opportunity,” RPS Career Education Coordinator Josh Wilken said. “Last spring, we had a lot of conversation about our CTE programs at Ralston High School. We looked at what we’re currently offering kids, and the student data that we’ve received back on the career interest surveys, and we saw a marked increase in the number of students who are interested in agriculture and related programs. We decided it was time to implement a related program for our students.”

Wilken, who spearheaded the project got to work trying to turn a good idea into reality.

“Last fall, we actually applied for the revision action grant through the Nebraska Department of Education, and we were successful in requesting $77,000 for the building of a greenhouse, and some of our additional programs that we currently have on site,” Wilken said. “I am extremely excited about our district receiving this grant. It was a really competitive grant, and I felt we had a strong application related to the goals of our programs. The work we are doing is extremely valuable. This grant will allow us to take our programs to the next level.”

The course will be offered this spring and will be taught by agriculture teacher Helena Johnson. While the course won’t take place until the spring, the soup-to-nuts experience begins soon ­— early October — with the construction of a greenhouse on campus.

The program is designed to expand the work-based learning curriculum by giving students a better perspective on food science and agriculture, while allowing them to grow their own food, gain a better idea of the farm-to-table concept and introduce a curriculum around marketing, entrepreneurship and menu design.

Although early in the process, Wilken says excitement for the new course among students is high, thanks in part to the success of other similar courses.

“We have a high number of students who we would consider program-of-study-completers, and when I use that term, those are three set courses, approved by the Nebraska Department of Education, within a specific career field,” Wilken said. “For example, we have an automotive academy. Students have to complete three courses to be considered program of study completers. Last year, we recognized our students at graduation for being a program completers. We had over 100 students out of a graduating class of approximately 240 kids that stood up to be recognized. We have a lot of kids who voluntarily participate in these programs.”

Wilken says enthusiasm for the CTE class matches the numbers and response they received from students.

“There’s a lot of demand for these classes, and we knew that there would be a lot of demand based on preliminary data work that we had done for agriculture as well,” Wilken said. “Those programs for ag are going to begin in the spring. We’ll be starting in what we would consider the third quarter … so in January with our first course. But by seeing that we’ve got 50 students already signed up to average class sizes of 25 kids in those two sections shows there’s a lot of demand. Certainly, with additional education, and additional exposure, we’re going to see those numbers increase.”

In the meantime, the focus shifts to constructing the greenhouse, a project that will be assisted by McCarthy Building Companies Inc. In a race to beat the impeding winter temperatures, construction on the greenhouse is set to begin in early October and hopefully be completed around Halloween.

“McCarthy construction is helping us oversee that process, and they’ve been a tremendous partner. We’ve also been very fortunate to get some additional donations,” Wilken said. “The goal is to have this done by the end of October so that when we start in January, it will be full implementation.”

When January rolls around, introductory agriculture students will be taught about greenhouse management, and the variety of things you can do in a greenhouse, including produce, horticulture and growing from seed versus plug, just to name a few. But, one of the beauties of the program is it’s room for growth and pliability.

 “As we continue with this program and grow this program, (there will be) opportunities to learn more about the entrepreneurial side,” Wilken said. “We are going to be developing at a Future Farmers of America chapter, which will be the first in this school’s existence, and one of only two in the Omaha metro area.

The program already has the go-ahead for a future intern from RPS Superintendent Mark Adler for a greenhouse intern, through their partnership with Intern Omaha. The intern will report directly to Johnson and Wilken and will be someone who plans to go into the field beyond high school.

“Starting next summer, we will have a year-long internship on greenhouse management.” Wilken said. “They will be required to maintain the equipment of the greenhouse, the day-to-day operations, they’re going to learn about the automated systems, the irrigation, electrical and all the related components. I think it’s going to be a really powerful experience for our kids.”

For more information on the program, visit ralstonschools.org/Page/6429.

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