For hands-on learning projects, few offer quite so direct an example of reaping the rewards of work and learning as gardening. That's especially true at Homer Flex School, where the standards-based curriculum is particularly geared toward germinating goals, monitoring growth and achieving a bounty of results.
"I have watched through the years and there's more and more student ownership of education at Homer Flex. Many times students come to us and don't even know what credits they're missing or what their transcripts say. At Flex, they know exactly where're they're at and what they need to do," said Karen Wessel, principal-teacher at the school.
Rather than a more traditional school approach, with students progressing linearly through a series of classes and grade levels, a standards-based program has students working toward demonstrating proficiency -- 80 percent or better -- of skills and knowledge required in each content area. This allows for flexibility in learning -- where students can progress quickly through some areas and take more time in others.
It also encourages interdisciplinary learning, since one science project involving research, tracking data and writing and presenting a report, can count toward standards in not only science, but also math, reading, technology, writing, art and social areas, such as public speaking and responsibility.
The gardening program has been a flourishing example of this approach. The school got a $500 grant last year and donations from the community to construct eight raised-bed gardens, four covered with hoop houses. They started growing primarily Asian greens in the spring, and donated their crop to the Homer Food Pantry. Over the summer production wilted, and through testing and research students determined that the soil's nutrients had been depleted and that the summer's cool, wet weather wasn't ideal for some crops.
Armed with that knowledge, students were able to dig into the project again this fall with a bumper crop of results, in the form of root vegetables.
"The emphasis is on the educational part, learning how to grow, what grows up here, learning the science behind gardening, botany, plant physiology and also preparing, harvesting and preserving the food," said Homer Flex teacher Jeff Szarzi.
The students cook a meal each Friday as part of the school's culinary program, and the fresh produce found its way into stir-fry dishes, kale chips, roasted vegetables and other healthy and hearty fare.
Two Flex students branched out from the gardening program in attending the Alaska Forum on the Environment, held Feb. 7 to 11 in Anchorage. Homer Olson and Benson Eldon participated in the youth-focused portion of the forum, giving a presentation about the gardening program.
The program itself is flourishing, as well. Szarzi said the school has formed a garden committee with students and members of the community to look into expanding the program by adding more garden plots as well as involving more students in tending the garden throughout the summer. The goal is to be able to provide produce for sale and to pay students for up to two hours a day of work in the garden throughout the summer.
"We've got a lot of support from the community and from the kids. It always blows me away how many kids want to get involved in things like this," Szarzi said.
Developing real-world, hands-on learning experiences is part of the Flex approach. Along with cooking and gardening, students also participate in emergency trauma technician training, volunteer in the community, work in job internships and make and sell furniture and ceramics.
"Whatever they're interested in, that's what drives it, and we try to tie the standards to whatever they find interesting," Szarzi said.
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