view counter

Sowing Seeds of Change

Agricultural program grows at Phoenix Academy

Tim Tichnell, Zach Sweers and Somer Cachero determine the best angle to dig a drainage ditch at the working farm at Phoenix Academy.

Next time you cruise down Cedar Park Road in Annapolis during school hours, you may well do a double-take as you pass the field next to Phoenix Academy. You’re likely to see rabbits munching greens in a sturdily built hutch, hear nanny goats bleating or glimpse teens carefully weeding a row of curly-leafed kale. Three years after a Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education was launched at this K-12 Anne Arundel County public school, there’s plenty of evidence that impressive hands-on learning is going on both within and outside the school walls.
    After a multi-million-dollar rehab of the former Germantown Elementary School, Phoenix Academy opened its doors three years ago to offer a unique mix of alternative and special education programs, as well as clinical and family support services, for kids who haven’t thrived at other schools. With 27 teachers and about 40 support staff, including an on-site psychiatrist, psychologists and social workers, Phoenix Academy provides unusual nurturance and unique opportunities for its 174 students.
    The Agricultural Science Program, along with a Culinary Arts course and a Print Program emphasizing computer graphics, involve high-schoolers in non-traditional education that can spur new enthusiasm for learning. Many of Phoenix Academy’s teens see the ag program as the school’s crown jewel.
    “We do not joke around and are very serious about the farm,” said student Zach Sweers. “There are no slackers here.”
    Other students have joined a statewide program that helps raise terrapins and later release them to Poplar Island in Chesapeake Bay.
    Somer Cachero, who has charted and measured a terrapin hatchling and cared for other farm animals, has only praise for Phoenix’s ag program: “I’ve wanted to stay in this school because of the agricultural classes. And now I want to become a zoologist and work with endangered species one day.”

Ag student Jacob Helms cuddles one of the rabbits he’s helped raise.

    In addition to the county’s standard curriculum, an Ag Club meets for 40 minutes four times a week, allowing students to apply traditional class work about animal anatomy and biology to the care and rearing of farm animals. Optimal combinations of nutritious feed have to be worked out; the physics of sloping a ditch away from pens and cages have to be calculated. As Phoenix Academy students take responsibility for the goats and rabbits in their care, they not only sharpen their critical thinking skills; they tap into deep feelings of empathy for their charges.
    “As teachers and administrators we do the same thing, reaching out and connecting with our students until all the treasure that lies within each of them is ready to shine forth,” says Phoenix Academy principal Merlene Clarke.
    The ag students grow and harvest crops, too. Eggplants, tomatoes and lettuce are seeded in a small solarium then transferred to raised beds outside, where bok choy, beets, carrots and zucchini will soon be flourishing. By the end of summer, rows of plants will stand tall in a new greenhouse made fully operational thanks to the Rotary Club of Parole’s $80,000 donation. This bounty should appear in the school’s cafeteria once the agricultural program passes state food-safety certification.
    Phoenix Academy principal Clarke couldn’t be prouder of her Ag students’ achievements. “We see carry-over into other aspects of the kids’ lives. After all, farmers have to use valuable life skills daily: The crops they plant have to be watched, tended, and grown until they’re ready to be harvested,” she says.
    “Phoenix students learn how to patiently problem-solve and set goals. That’s how we help kids succeed; no exceptions.”