Edward Young was on a path from Southern High School to the Durham County jail, his teacher says.
“He was probably one of the most notorious kids in the building,” said Len Currington, an exceptional children teacher at the school.
But over the past year, Young’s direction has shifted, in part, due to digging in the ground and watching plants grow.
“I could see myself doing that in the future,” said Young, a 6-foot-2 senior. “As in my career.”
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A joint effort between the school and the Durham Soil and Water Conservation introduced Young, 20, to planting and landscaping.
Teaching students with learning disabilities is one aspect of the Bionomic Educational Training Centers program, which has obtained nearly $1 million in grants. The pilot program aims to establish a model of building agribusinesses within schools.
The program also seeks to appeal to the larger student body by retrofitting the campus to prevent pollutants from reaching Falls Lake while introducing a hands-on approach to soil and water quality analysis and stormwater engineering curriculum.
The program reflects the Durham Soil & Water Conservation District’s two-part mission to educate the community about its natural resources and provide grants and incentives to make projects happen.
Banging on doors
The Southern High program started after a number of circumstances came together.
The conservation district’s board adopted the Bionomic Education Training Centers program in 2009.
“The idea was to get every school to implement it,” especially middle and high schools, said Mike Dupree, agribusiness environmental services director for the conservation district.
In 2010, Amy Jenkins, started teaching exceptional children at Southern High. Like most Durham Public Schools, Southern High offers an occupational course of study to students with learning disabilities. In addition to learning reading, writing and math in classrooms, students spend time at volunteer and paid opportunities at the school, nonprofit organizations and businesses to learn on the job training.
Initially, the on-the-job learning opportunities, which included working at thrift stores and food banks, concerned Jenkins.
The experiences were positive, Jenkins said, but they weren’t preparing students for 21st century careers. So Jenkins started banging on doors looking for an opportunity that would provide “real-world job training,” like an agribusiness.
She met Dupree, who was looking for a place to pilot the Bionomic Education Training Centers curriculum.
The heart of Southern High’s agribusiness is a row of wooden rectangular boxes that house young trees popping with their red and maroon fall leaves, smaller browning plants such as buterfly weed, black-eyed susans and bee balm, and a splash for purple from pea-like blooms from a false indigo flowers.
“This is our outdoor plant bed,” Jenkins said.
The students care for and install the flowing and spiked-leaf plants in rain gardens, landscaping that captures and cleans stormwater.
“(The conservation district) helped connect them with land owners who paid the school to install rain gardens,” Dupree said. “In turn they used that money to help build the program.”
The program has installed three rain gardens on Southern’s campus and 15 on public and private properties across Durham.
The students also maintain the landscaped area by the Southern High sign, tend plants at the school and in classrooms and experiment with growing seasonal vegetables.
Weaved into the work, Jenkins said, are lessons on taking initiative, interacting with co-workers and showing up on time.
“Learning how to act on a job,” Jenkins said.
Conservation Districts programs at Southern have recieved nearly $1 million in grants.
In 2012, the program received a $30,750 from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The grant enhanced the school’s agribusiness and helped the conservation district establish a soil and water quality analysis and storm water engineering curriculum a broader student population could use at all schools.
Classes at Northern High and Lowe’s Grove Middle also use the science curriculum.
In 2014, the Conservation District received three grants totaling, $936,000. The money will fund a project and related curriculum that will be weaved into science and engineering classes to retrofit the Southern High campus to treat stormwater runoff and prevent pollutants from reaching Falls Lake.
The project also seeks to capture stormwater runoff and use it to water five athletic fields, saving the school about $15,000 annually, Dupree said.
Over the summer, eight of Southern High’s exceptional students participated in an intership taking care of trees at Durham Public Schools. The internship was Letesha Andrews’ first paid job.
The 17-year-old senior grew in the program from a shy and quiet student who would “literally say two words a day,” Currington said, to someone who helps other students, thinks her actions through and successfully sought a job at a daycare by networking and following through.
Through the program, Andrews said, she has learned how to open up more.
“It was good,” said Andrews, who plans on attending college next year.
Teachers said they noticedYoung’s turning point at the end of last year.
In his first few years at Southern, Young would skip school, get in fights and go out in the community and get in trouble. Young spent a total of a-year-and-a-half at the system’s alternative school, Lakeview School.
“He didn’t care about anything,” Currington said. “He just wanted to hang out with his friends and socialize.”
Currington said he noticed Young’s behavior shift after a meeting last year with his mother and other school staff.
“His mom, she challenged him,” Currington said. “She really laid it on him. She said ‘You have all these groups of teachers dealing with you, and you won’t take advantage of it. Time is going to be up for that.’ ”
Young said he started to see that he wasn’t making any progress.
“I was just basically at the beginning the whole time,” Young said. “I got tired of doing wrong, so I wanted to do better.”
Currington noticed the shift in Young’s behavior when he was working on a rain garden at the end of the last school year.
“He was picking and shoveling and directing,” transforming a grassy area into a garden area spotted with cardinal flowers, irises, butterfly weed and cantalillies, Currington said. “We were like, ‘Whoa, OK. Come on. Now he is, like, different.’”
When Young returned in August, it was clear that he was looking toward his future, Currington said. He was taking ownership, being more responsible and warning other kids not to take the path he had taken.
The planting, Young said, gave him an opportunity to be good at something, to become a leader, and gave him an idea about what he could do after he graduates.
“I kind of found out what I like to do,” Young said. “I could see myself doing that and watching flowers grow.”
50 years of working for an evolving environment
The Durham Soil & Water Conservation District is celebrating 50 years as a district.
Following the dust storms of the 1920s, Hugh Hammond Bennett, a North Carolina native, urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress to pass legislation in 1937 that led to soil conservation and local conservation programs.
The Durham Soil and Water Conservation District was initially part of the Neuse River Soil Conservation District, established March 22, 1937. In the 1960s districts splintered into county-based districts due to different watersheds’ needs.
From 1965 until the mid 1980s, the main focus of the Durham district was providing technical assistance to the agriculture community. Numerous Best Management Practices were installed, mainly in the Little River and Lake Michie watersheds. The reservoirs provide drinking water to Durham’s population.
Following the establishment of Research Triangle Park and the area’s increased urbanization, district officials began to notice new environmental challenges, such as sediment deposits into water bodies, a rise in downtown’s temperature and litter impacting streams.
In the 1980s, the district started establishing programs that address challenges outside traditional agriculture.
Now the district offers multiple educational and environmental outreach programs for homeowners and farmers. The district also provides best management practices conservation programs and seeks state and federal grant funds to improve water quality on public and private land.
The district also seeks to preserve farmland within the district through various programs.
Source: Durham Soil & Water Conservation District
For more information, go to http://bit.ly/DCSWCD.