Johnson City Press - August 17, 2008
By Jeff Keeling
Press Business Editor
The wind of the future is blowing at David Crockett High School, and it has a decidedly green tint, both financially and environmentally.
Students and faculty have jumped enthusiastically into a grant-funded partnership with East Tennessee State University that grant administrator Judith Hammond said is blossoming rapidly into a local farming and alternative energy bonanza at the school west of Jonesborough.
When the "GEAR UP" program began working with sixth- and seventh-graders three years ago, Hammond said, she wasn't sure what direction it would take as the partners focused on academic achievement, social development and early career considerations. But the strength of the school system's agriculture program quickly became evident, and then ETSU engineering technology professor Paul Sims caught students' attention with a unit on alternative energy.
"It's like we struck a vein," Hammond said. "It took us awhile to recognize where the strengths of that particular rural school lie.
"We found it with the agriculture program, and we also found a vein in the middle schools when we introduced the kids to alternative energy."
The grant, which has at least three years left, officially follows a cohort that this school year are freshman and sophomores at Crockett, but juniors and seniors have jumped in on the action. This summer, students and faculty from Crockett and ETSU constructed a second greenhouse at Crockett and erected a windmill and solar panels to power the high-tech instrumentation inside.
And with demand for locally produced food skyrocketing, the program is beginning a partnership with Abingdon, Va.-based Appalachian Sustainable Development to train interested students in organic farming and related trades. ASD Director Anthony Flaccavento said the demand for organic and local food far outstrips supply, and he had been searching for an area high school that would embrace the opportunities in sustainable agriculture.
"Besides farming, there are these business opportunities that support a healthy local food system," said Flaccavento, who plans to help GEAR UP develop its own organic garden and work on getting the produce distributed regionally.
"We'd love to see people designing and making some of the vegetable production equipment like mulchers and bed shapers. Some of the kids who are very mechanical could probably look at some of the equipment we're bringing in from Ohio and, with the help of a good teacher, design that as well. This is an exciting thing for us if we could make it go."
It's got Hammond very excited about the next several years.
"We hope this really redefines Crockett's programs as visionary, and as cutting edge when it comes to the green-collar economy, sustainable development and preparing these kids to have a real edge in the job market when it comes to anything from retrofitting buildings to organic farming."
Though she isn't part of the student group covered by the grant, senior and FFA President Carrie Lykins has caught the bug. She plans to pursue a construction engineering degree at ETSU and put that to use primarily in agriculture.
"We're discovering there's no end to what we can do in the job market with what we're learning here," said Lykins, who helped during the greenhouse and green energy construction this summer.
Guy McAmis, Crockett's drafting and Computer Aided Design teacher, worked on the energy project this summer and sees great potential for his students.
"There's going to be a lot available out there as far as installing windmills and solar panels, and that's what I want to instill in my kids, that they have got a career in this," McAmis said.
Sims, the engineering professor, said the GEAR UP project does a great job of integrating students who are on a technical path with those following the college prep path - with the greenhouse project providing a prime example.
"You're getting these kids to interact in the greenhouse, and you're using the science clubs to help support the greenhouse as far as aligning the solar panels, doing some of the things we're doing with the instrumentation. You're getting the ag students to interact with them to show them what they do, and it's just a great thing."
Crockett science teacher and science club advisor Scott La Voie agreed with Sims that the program does a great job of combining the interests and skills of students pursuing the technical path and those on the college prep track.
"It means a great deal, especially in this area with the agricultural opportunities," La Voie said.
"The opportunities these kids have will just blossom. The combination of the science club and FFA is kind of a no-brainer, especially given the history of agriculture in this area."
Agriculture teacher Ryan Arnett is also convinced his students are coming of age in an era when farming could make a major comeback.
"You see signs at all the supermarkets saying locally grown produce," Arnett said. "That's a top seller."
The project is creating quite a buzz, and ASD isn't the only recent partner. Jenny Lockmiller works with area youth through the Workforce Investment Board and is working with students and teachers on how the school's nature trail in a wooded area of the campus could contribute to careers in forestry and park management.
Lindsey King, an ETSU a sociology/anthropology instructor, is completing a video project documenting the entire GEAR UP experience.
It's an experience Sims hasn't been able to uncover anywhere else as he's looked for a school anywhere in the country that's doing something like Crockett.
"I've found real good examples of schools using alternative energy, but they're just producing it," Sims said.
"They're not using it, as we are, to control and run a greenhouse, to turn it into something that's usable on-site. They're generating it and pumping it out to the grid, or drive the lights in the school, but nothing where the students interact and learn like this that I can find."
That's what Hammond likes to hear. She believes the renaissance at Crockett has come at an opportune moment, with energy costs and food safety issues at the forefront of Americans' consciousness.
"It's ready, it's timely, and I'm just excited about what it can do to get Crockett some well-deserved local respect and maybe even some national attention," Hammond said.