The Other 60 Percent

Domes sprouting on Colorado campuses

Schools across the state are investing in domed greenhouses as a way to transform gardening into a year-round learning activity for students and to supply school lunchrooms with homegrown fresh produce regardless of the season outside.

Students from Crest Academy in Salida examine plants growing in the domed greenhouse a block from their school.

Students and parents at Flagstaff Academy, a public charter school in Longmont, last month completed building an 850-square-foot domed greenhouse, a project three years in the making.

In Colorado Springs District 11, officials have partnered with Pikes Peak Urban Gardens to build an even larger greenhouse at Galileo School of Math and Science on the school’s old tennis courts. Funded through a federal Magnet Schools of America grant, construction on the $50,000 dome will begin within the month and should be complete by the time classes resume.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest in school greenhouses now,” said Allen Werthan, founder and executive director of Global Children’s Gardens, an Evergreen-based non-profit that over the past few years has helped seven Colorado schools install greenhouse domes, including the one at Flagstaff Academy.

“There’s just more awareness that healthy eating is significant for kids,” he said.

Werthan recently partnered with TV chef Jamie Oliver to build a dome in Arizona for Navajo youth.

“They’re fighting challenges there of a fast food-only diet and no fresh vegetables, and rampant obesity and diabetes. The dream of the tribal elders was to connect kids back to their traditional diet,” he said.

In Colorado, Global Children’s Gardens helped the Southern Ute Academy in Ignacio built a 22-foot domed greenhouse in 2006 for similar reasons.

“At the Ute Academy, their motivation is to fight the twin plagues of diabetes and obesity,” Werthan said, as well as to preserve the wisdom of tribal elders in the area of traditional medicinal plants.

“Four years of Sundays” to build a greenhouse

Werthan, who ran a mountain school for children and a natural foods restaurant in Evergreen for many years before starting Global Children’s Gardens in 2003, has always had a passion for connecting children with the natural world.

Growing Spaces, a Pagosa Springs company, offers domed greenhouses in different sizes.

He says he spent “four years of Sundays” building his first greenhouse, only to watch it collapse under 4 feet of snow one winter.

“That led to the search for a greenhouse suitable for global distribution, regardless of climate,” he said.

He found it at Growing Spaces, a Pagosa Springs company that sells domed greenhouses in sizes ranging from small 150-square-foot structures to domes covering more than 2,000 square feet. Solar-powered, the domes stay warm throughout winter, even though they’re off the electrical grid.

Launched in 1989 as an offshoot of John Denver’s Windstar Foundation, Growing Spaces has sold domes to 80 schools around the country, including 18 in Colorado. The company has seen phenomenal growth in recent years, said CEO Puja Dhyan Parsons.

“We grew from a company of four to a company of 23, and most of that growth has been in the last five years,” she said. “2008 was our biggest year until this one. It’s just been steady growth because of all the interest in sustainability.”

“Schools are interested in our Growing Domes because they’re really designed and built for the Rocky Mountains,” she added. “We feel we’ve mastered the climate here, the snowload. And sometimes schools want to put a dome in the South 40. It can be remote and not even tied into the main water system, and still be sustainable.”

Schools who partner with Global Children’s Gardens get assistance from Werthan in figuring out how to fund and build a dome from Growing Spaces. Prices start at $5,000 for materials for a do-it-yourself 15-foot-diameter dome.

“I can speak to PTAs, guide them through the process. I can share from my experience what they can create, I can offer help with siting, with budgeting, with fund-raising suggestions,” Werthan said.

Erecting a dome “like an old-fashioned barn-raising”

That’s by no means the only way to get a dome. Domes can be purchased direct from manufacturers, and professional crews can be hired to install it. Growing Spaces will supply a crew to build its largest domes because they’re so tall. But Werthan prefers the community-built to the professionally-built dome.

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“It’s like an old-fashioned barn-raising,” he said. “You have so much sense of ownership when you build it yourself.”

Montessori School of Evergreen built its dome, with GCG’s help, more than seven years ago. It’s proven a blessing time and again, said Beth Heller, the head of school. Initially built for use by middle schoolers at MSE’s Marshdale campus, the school later added a second greenhouse for its younger students on its Troutdale campus.

“Part of Montessori is real-life problem-solving, and our middle schoolers were thinking how they could get money to go to the Teton Science School for a week,” Heller said. “They figured out if they grew herbs, they could make herb vinegar and sell it for a profit. And we thought a greenhouse was something we could integrate throughout our curriculum.”

Now the middle school students take greenhouse and cooking elective classes, using fresh ingredients grown there. At the Troutdale campus, each class from pre-school through third grade has its own plot of land inside the greenhouse. The greenhouse also houses turtles and fish.

“The children love taking care of the animals, and we talk about how a symbiotic system is created, what they need from us and what we need from them,” Heller said.

Domes spreading in school districts across the state

Among the other domed greenhouses sprouting on Colorado campuses recently:

  • Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale built its dome in the spring of 2010 to serve as a hands-on agricultural science classroom for students. The project is a partnership between the school and Fat City Farmers, a sustainable agriculture education program, and the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt.
  • Yampah Mountain High School in Carbondale installed a domed greenhouse in 2009.
  • Clear Creek High School in Evergreen installed a domed greenhouse a year ago in partnership with Rotary Club and Beau Jo’s Pizza. The students sell back the herbs they grow in the greenhouse to the restaurant. “It’s a cool model in terms of the funding for it, and the motivation,” said Werthan. “It’s an offshoot of the biology department but with an entrepreneurial component.”
  • GCG owns a greenhouse in Salida that is used by students from nearby Longfellow Elementary, Chaffee County Montessori and Crest Academy. Students there have grown an abundance of fresh vegetables inside the greenhouse and have been very successful in selling their fresh salad green at a local farmer’s market, Werthan said.

Springs dome to be used for science classes

At Galileo School in Colorado Springs, the Growing Space domed greenhouse will be used to grow produce year round and the district’s Food and Nutrition Department will buy all the produce grown for use in the school cafeteria. The funds from the sales of produce will pay for a part-time master gardener to oversee the growing spaces.

In addition, some areas inside the greenhouse will be set aside for students to conduct plant and soil research for science classes, said district spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

Besides the covered dome, the remainder of the tennis courts at Galileo will be converted into raised beds, with gathering areas for school classes. Immediately outside the dome, the school will install a sensory garden and a permaculture garden, she said.

“When the grant was written four years ago to establish Galileo, a greenhouse was included as something they wanted to do as part of the curriculum,” said Jessica Sharp, director of grants for the Colorado Springs district.

“At that time, we couldn’t find the appropriate person to contract with. It’s taken us this long to find something of high enough quality that it was worth the money, and something that didn’t require a lot of construction-related costs.”

Charlie Warren, science director at Flagstaff Academy, a K-8 charter school with a science and technology emphasis, said he expects every child in the school to log some greenhouse time during the coming school year.

“This is a big part of our answering a challenge of how you do outdoor education in a suburban environment,” he said. “This is a big chunk of outdoors where kids can get their hands into the dirt and find out where their food comes from.”

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.