The two-year pilot project tweaks GRuB’s Cultivating Youth program in a subtle yet potentially significant way, incorporating it into the Olympia High School curriculum.
Historically, the west Olympia-based nonprofit has worked with about 20 at-risk high school students from throughout South Sound each summer and into the school year, teaching them how to grow food for low-income families in a rigorous, responsible and relationship-building way.
In the past 10 years, only 41 percent of the young people who completed a full year with GRuB were on track to graduate from high school. Many were high school drop-outs waiting to happen.
Today, more than 91 percent of the GRuB program participants have graduated or earned their GED. Even more impressive, 66 percent have gone on to college, many becoming the first in their family to do so.
GRuB’s success with disenfranchised youth has caught the attention of parents, educators, counselors and others, including Olympia High School principal Matt Grant, who is passionate about finding new ways to engage students and reduce the number of students failing or close to failing their high school classes – roughly 10 percent of the school population.
Grant approached GRuB last fall after visiting the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, a residential self-help organization consisting of drug addicts, alcohol abusers and school dropouts who teach one another marketable skills and self-esteem with little outside help from professionals.
“When I returned home to Olympia, I was eager to find a model that could engage our students the way Delancey engaged their residents,” Grant said in a letter to the Gates Foundation in support of a $50,000 planning grant, which GRuB received this past summer.
He immediately thought of GRuB and the success the nonprofit group has shown with students who struggled at school.
The two parties met, setting the wheels in motion for a collaborative project in which students will earn science, social studies and English credits in the GRuB program, spending up to half their school days at the farm the first year, continuing education with GRuB the second year on a reduced schedule.
In addition, GRuB co-Director Blue Peetz is headed back to college part time to earn his teaching certificate to work with students enrolled in the program scheduled to launch in 2011.
If the project is successful at Olympia High School, Peetz envisions the day when it can be expanded to other high schools in South Sound, each with a garden site, preferably off-campus, to grow empowered, community-minded youth and nutritious food.
“I’m excited to go to Olympia and start working with the kids,” Peetz said.
For the new model to succeed, GRuB needs to maintain its autonomy and integrity, Peetz said. The students view it as an extension of school, a place where if they are not prospering, the program won’t work.
“We’re not a classroom and we don’t have textbooks,” Peetz emphasized. “We work our kids hard – get them dirty and get them sweaty. And our kids know what it’s like to be hungry.”
One of the downsides of the change in direction at GRuB is the inability to serve at-risk youth from other high schools for the next two years, Peetz noted.
“But our bigger, long-term vision is to make it work at the school district level throughout South Sound,” Peetz said.
Other school district officials are watching the pilot project with interest.
“As this program at Olympia High School gets funded and off the ground, we in North Thurston can learn from it and plan for a similar program that suits the needs of our district, which includes a student body that is 40 percent diverse and 40 percent low-income,” said North Thurston Public Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas in a letter of support for the planning grant.
“With more cuts to state funding for basic education, we need to look beyond the classroom to build partnerships and find resources that can benefit our youth in learning and in life,” Manhas continued. “This is such a program.”
Peetz acknowledges that many challenges remain to get the pilot project off the ground, including sustainable funding at a time when school districts are hard-pressed to launch new education programs.
And while GRuB has a solid track record in the field of fundraising – witness its new farmhouse on Elliot Avenue – it’s hard to keep going back to the community for more money.
But the boundless enthusiasm of Peetz and other GRuB staff members, combined with the community partners GRuB has cultivated in its battle to fight hunger and help at-risk youth in South Sound, suggests to me the pilot project will be up and running when the next summer growing season rolls around.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org