Chartiers Valley program readies students for real work experiences
Imagine a class where the students decide what they want to learn. Then, they spend the entire school year learning just that.
At Chartiers Valley High School, an experimental sustainability-centered class this school year, known as the internship and career experience program, put the students in the driver seat.
The senior-only course required students interview to participate, and they helped design the course in meetings with school leaders prior to the start of the school year.
“We came up with this concept that was very, very out of the box,” teacher Clayton McGalla said. “The future is personalized learning. This program was very unique.”
Initially, the class was formed around a partnership with the Allegheny Land Trust, where students were supposed to work on the farm of late South Fayette resident Harry Meyer.
“Harry envisioned a working, educational, demonstration farm,” Roy Kraynyk, vice president of Land Protection & Capital Projects with the ALT said in a statement. “His goal was for his land to be used in perpetuity to remind people, especially children, where their food comes from, the importance of protecting agricultural lands, and fostering a sense of land stewardship through the experience of visiting the farm.”
The Allegheny Land Trust is in the process of acquiring the farm.
However, Chartiers Valley students didn’t have access to the farm for the 2018-19 school year. That meant the two students enrolled in the class, and McGalla, truly had to craft their own curriculum as they went.
The class focused on sustainability. McGalla challenged the students to focus on what they want to learn that affects their community, school and themselves.
They had lots of ideas: increase recycling in the school and add edible landscaping around the building. They quickly learned that not every idea can easily translate into a project.
Their goal was to put a QR code on the side of all garbage cans in the school. Students would be curious and scan it with their phones, they envisioned. The code would take them to a YouTube video that followed a garbage can to the landfill.
They also wanted to turn all of the open spaces in their school into areas that don’t require mowing, fertilizer or weed whacking. Instead, as McGalla put it, imagine those spaces filled with tomato plants.
Both projects hit roadblocks and didn’t come to fruition, but that was a huge part of the class.
The students learned how to adult. They made all the calls to find out the whys and hows.
“It’s life. It was real world,” McGalla said.
Other projects were more successful.
The students created an aquaponics system in a fish tank in McGalla’s classroom. The tank, which has a mix of minnows and goldfish, is growing kale and Swiss chard in plastic cups at the top. They’re being nourished by the fish waste.
The students also built three raised beds on a balcony above the school. They used large plastic containers used to carry blue liquid to Porta-Johns and cut them in half, along with wooden pallets. There, they have kale and lettuce planted.
“We have a lot more things we want to do up here,” McGalla said.
While the course may have been full of trial and error, Lydia Tavoletti, 18, a senior, talks passionately about what she learned.
Going into the year, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect. She’s passionate about food production and knowing where your food comes from, and had connected with McGalla over this in a past course.
Through the course, she learned about things she never expected she would ever learn.
In addition to learning “basic horticulture,” she had to call companies to ask for donations and use tools in a shop class to build raised beds.
“I learned how to get out of my comfort zone,” she said. “We learned to be creative and repurpose things.”
She learned about aquaponics and even got an internship at the Pittsburgh Urban Gardening Project through the class, where she ran a farmers’ market on Wednesday nights and worked on Sunday mornings last summer. She’s returning again for another internship this summer.
“I feel like I learned so much and I didn’t even realize it,” said Tavoletti, who is heading to California Polytechnic State University next year to major in agriculture and environmental plant science. “I felt like I had a class for me.”
The class won’t return in 2019-20.
However, McGalla has a vision with hopes to bring it back in the future.
He’d like to tie in a farmers market and have students grow food to sell. Then, the money raised at the market could be put back into the class. How that will play out remains to be told.
The Allegheny Land Trust is still in the process of acquiring the South Fayette farm that Meyer bequeathed to the organization in his will.
“We look forward to having CVSD students on the farm as soon as we own it,” Christopher Beichner, Allegheny Land Trust president & CEO said in a statement. “We also look forward to working with the local school districts, the municipality, and the immediate neighbors to develop a farm master plan to ensure we create a viable educational environment that supports Mr. Meyer’s vision for his farm.”