Wando students rooted Horticulture program growing

The hydroponic towers in the classroom support leafy greens beneath grow lights.

High schools have changed.

In the mid-1980s, we had desks and chalkboards. If we were lucky, we got to use a computer. The future held promises of computers you could hold in your hand, cars that could be plugged into the wall and personal jet packs.

I recently visited the future at Wando High School’s newly opened Center for Advanced Studies building. The horticulture students were not in the greenhouse or trapped in a classroom. They were on the roof.

Katie Donohoe started the horticulture program in 2009 with five shovels and a trailer. At the time, she was told this was a pilot program and, if all went well, could become permanent. She began that fall semester with a handful of students. By January, there was a waiting list. Donohoe’s program grew like a weed and hasn’t stopped.

It didn’t happen by accident. She knew that for the program to succeed, she would have to fund consumables such as soil, fertilizer and plants. She didn’t always take the path most traveled to do so. Thinking outside the window box allowed her to obtain grow lights.

“I was just wondering,” Donohoe says, “what the police do with confiscated growing supplies.” Her instincts were on the money and soon indoor grow lights were donated to the program by the Mount Pleasant Police Department that allowed her to extend her classroom growing season. This spurred more interest from students that eventually led to a greenhouse.

Today she has 120 students and the school has hired another instructor, Alex Pennekamp, to help teach. All students take an introductory class. About half of them continue taking the other horticulture classes.

“We get two kinds of students,” Donohoe says. “Students that want to grow crops, and students that don’t like sitting in class.”

The greenhouse class was on the roof tending to crops in raised beds. Donohoe had them divided into five teams, each with their own business. In addition to creating a company name and logo and solving business problems, each student is growing 120 plants from seed until it becomes a salable crop. They are tracing inventory and growth using assigned iPads to take pictures and develop spreadsheets.

In addition to raised beds, the roof also has a rain cistern to collect rainwater for irrigation. They have GAP-certified, or good agricultural practice, beds to supply the cafeteria with vegetables. Squash, zucchini, kale and collards are organically grown during the appropriate season.

When the class was done on the roof, we stopped by the classroom on the third floor where hydroponic towers were loaded with leafy greens under brightly lit grow lights.

The greenhouse is outside the building where the students began repotting and watering their crops. There are plans to start a community supported agriculture program to provide fruits and vegetables to those that sign up. In the meantime, the students take orders from faculty on what they’re currently growing. The students make the deliveries.

This was the end of my “new facilities” tour. Afterward, I made my way across campus. Behind the school is the trailer where the horticulture program started. Pennekamp was in the old greenhouse that’s about half the size of the new one.

His intro class was feeding goldfish in an aquaponics system the students built. They are growing potted plants in a large tub. Fish waste can pollute water with excess nitrogen. Plants not only absorb the waste to improve water quality but the fish waste serves as fertilizer. The class was currently comparing aquaponic-grown plants to ones traditionally fertilized.

“It’s all hands-on,” Pennekamp says. “The students actually came up with the idea of aquaponics and wanted to put it in action.”

“The goal,” Donohoe adds, “is to not only give the students experience, but help them find something they might love to do for a career.”

For the horticulture students at Wando, the future has arrived.

Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at tony.bertauski@tridenttech.edu.