DANA MERRYDAY/CHRONICLE PHOTO

Al Kennedy High School students, led by teacher David Heritage, are installing solar panels as part of a CTE program.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a month-long series on high school graduation.

There are exciting things happening at Al Kennedy High School (AKHS) and impressive additions have taken root at the SLSD school located in Saginaw.

A new state-of-the-art greenhouse has been installed, a fruit orchard is leafing out, and soon the school will be able to power itself from a bank of solar modules.

Besides these innovations there is a subtler change in the focus of not what AKHS is teaching its students, but how. There are two Career Technical Educational (CTE) programs in the birthing stages at the high school. The path toward the CTE approach was a result of the school being impacted by the pandemic.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you Covid, the staff at AKHS use the time to prepare for better days ahead. The small school that provides a vehicle for success for students who don’t always blossom in the traditional high school setting were hit pretty hard when Covid eliminated the close personal student/staff contact that was a trademark the school named for the still-living icon, Al Kennedy. The switch to online school was not great for many Kennedy students, internet accessibility being a big part of the issue. Online school was a challenge for many, but especially the population served by AKHS. 

Kennedy’s staff kept reaching out to students as best they could, but not having in-person school they used the opportunity that was rare in a teacher’s lifetime to pursue bigger plans. What has emerged is a new way of going about what AKHS has pretty much always done, but with more resources and hopefully with more value for students.

The CTE model is one of the newer concepts in education today. This approach is providing avenues for success for high school students by tapping into their natural interests and utilizing students’ unique learning needs. Hands-on activities and projects are a big part of the CTE model as is the focus of teaching that leaves students technically prepared with some very employable skills. By focusing on current or emerging industries, students can see a path forward and get much more into what is being taught as opposed to the traditional student resistance of “When will I ever need to know this stuff?”

Which leads us back to the solar panels. I sat down with David Heritage, AKHS math, science and electrical engineering teacher, and one of the leads in forming the CTE program that focuses on Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resources. As part of the natural resources aspect, Heritage showed me a group of tables completely covered with newly acquired equipment, tools, and gadgetry that can be configured into a number of experiments and projects for students learning about electricity and how to generate it from wind and sun. “This is so great to have students be able to get their hands directly onto this and get excited about the possibilities. The best part is it is on the kid level. The mini solar panels can be connected to a small motor with fan blades and students can go outside and do all sorts of experiments with angles to the sun, blocking exposure and compare their results to our new solar array.”

The experimental equipment came through a fellowship program Heritage took through Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Not only did they provide the training and a stipend, they provided him with money for a “shopping spree” to purchase materials needed for his classes. The big solar array outside is through a grant of local power provider Emerald People’s Utility District. At peak times with clear skies the array can produce 9.88 Kilowatts, enough to power the whole school and still return power to the grid. Using all the new equipment students can learn critical skills by doing and can emerge both juiced on solar power and with the knowledge to get a job in the field. “It’s not just the technical skills needed to be an installer or electrician, some students will see that there are support jobs in the solar industry such as office, sales, and communication that are just as essential and maybe more to their liking and skill-sets. By doing lots of different things with what we have, they can see their own possibilities for a future,” Heritage said.

We went next door to the “Maker Space,” where a growing collection of tools, work tables, and supplies laid out in bins form a creative dreamland for students to build projects. “This is taking STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math) and turning it into STEAM, the ‘A’ being art. Already a student brought in his electric guitar which had quit working and by using a multimeter and a soldering iron, both of which he had never done, fixed his guitar and was able to go home excited with his newly acquired skills and to be able to rock out again,” Heritage related.  

While the solar power aspect is something new at AKHS, the forestry and agriculture are not. Al Kennedy was a forester and the AKHS conservation crews have been doing forestry work from the beginning when Kennedy took the first bunch of students into the woods. They also have been doing agriculture for a long time. Raising native plants for habitat restoration, food crops, and vegetable starts. With the addition of the new greenhouse the possibilities have expanded considerably from the already expansive school gardens. There was a greenhouse at the old AKHS site, some pieces of which have been recycled into cold frames, and small greenhouses at the Delight Valley location.

The new greenhouse was a gift from the Taubert Foundation and still needs a few tweaks before it becomes operational. It will become the centerpiece for focusing on raising hot house vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant and other veggies that don’t do as well as they could with the cool Oregon temps. Another target will be growing salad greens and other frost-sensitive plants during the winter. These growing crops will be part of the entrepreneurial aspect of the CTE path. Besides learning to grow food and getting their agricultural skills honed, students will be looking at how to market their crops in a way that won’t compete with local growers. One pathway for this will be selling the produce back to the school district. Another would be possibly selling wholesale to local growers.

These ideas will be distilled in another new idea, an after-school club where interested students will develop the business model for the greenhouse produce and other ideas. The maker space will be available to them as well so it can be a real incubator for moving from the idea stage into a reality. Jess Martinez, another AKHS teacher, talked excitedly about the possibilities. “When you have 2 or 3 students in a class that are really excited about something and the rest are not really that interested it is hard to be able to focus on and encourage those students. With the after-school club we will be able to give them our undivided attention and encouragement.”

The school Orchard was planted two years ago through actions of the Kennedy Guides Advisory Board. “Students dug the holes for the trees and helped decide which varieties to plant by doing some tastings. They also helped with mulch and monitoring watering,” Board member Richard Sedlock said. The Board was also behind helping to get the new greenhouse at AKHS. When the fruit starts to come in there will be a new opportunity for CTE to blossom learning pruning, handling, and distribution of the fruits of the labor.

The other CTE program will be focused on early childhood education.

This could lead to a teaching career or encourage other avenues of study.

One of the first initiatives for this program will be tying in the environmental aspect of the school. It would achieve that goal by developing environmental lessons that would then be presented at local elementary schools.

This CTE avenue is not as developed yet as the other current offerings but will move along as students return for next school year.

In Heritage’s classroom stands a large Smart Panel teaching device acquired through a Perkins Grant. Using it he was able to show me pictures of the process of setting up the solar array which had to be well-anchored to be safe from wind, and at the correct angle and orientation for maximum efficiency. Students will be able to do the same thing with the modules (panels) that Heritage was able to purchase and they will also learn to wire them and experiment on getting the highest output from the devices.

“Having access to all this equipment and technology is something I have never experienced as a teacher before. I had gotten used to working in a malnourished state when it came to resources. Having the time to be able to apply for grants and attend courses has really gotten me to a place where I can’t wait for next year. We will be rebuilding the culture at AKHS after this Covid year and with our CTE focus. To use the agriculture analogy, in the past it was like planting seeds in poor soil. Now with the richness of materials and equipment the seeds (students) will be placed in soil that has been amended with nutrients and fertilizers. It is going to be great to see them bloom,” Heritage concluded.

AKHS is looking forward to an in-person graduation on Saturday, June 12 at 10 a.m. under the covered shelter with the greenhouse, orchard, and plans for the future in full view.

Email: 

[email protected]