A group of Nevada Union High School students traded their books for shovels on Monday as they joined the nonprofit Common Vision in planting 25 fruit trees on campus.
The orchard, planted on one-third of an acre, will be part of an outdoor classroom for the school’s Green Academy, which offers students an interdisciplinary curriculum focused around outdoor education, environmental education and activism.
“It’s supposed to be just an oasis within the school,” said Junie Bedayn, a Nevada Union junior and member of the school’s environmental committee who was helping to plant trees on Monday.
The Green Academy, which launched last year, was developed by Nevada Union Principal Dan Frisella and Scott Mikal, one of the school’s teachers, who had worked on a similar program at a high school in the Bay Area.
The school initially obtained a $50,000 grant to plan curriculum, purchase Chromebooks for the program’s students and coordinate professional development for teachers, followed by a $100,000 grant to implement the program.
Currently, there are about 50 freshman and sophomores in the Green Academy, which is designed to grow to about 200 students.
The students are enrolled in core classes, such as English, history and science, that meet Common Core standards but where discussions, assignments and projects are geared toward sustainability, renewable energy and other environmental topics.
The academy offers students the opportunity to focus on an area of interest and study those topics in depth.
“We hope for them to have a leg up in what is a growing industry of environmentally based jobs,” Frisella said.
The orchard planted Monday was made possible by Common Vision, which has worked for the past decade to create outdoor classrooms in mostly lower-income schools across California. The nonprofit has planted fruit tree orchards in 200 schools, and has a goal of planting orchards in 1,000 schools by 2025.
Common Vision has helped students in six schools in Nevada County create an outdoor classroom; the organization works with Sierra Harvest, a Nevada City-based nonprofit that aims to connect Nevada County residents to local food, to identify schools that would be a good fit for an orchard.
The nonprofit collaborates with staff and students at each school on the location and design of the orchard. In addition to helping plant the trees, Common Vision installs a drip irrigation system and mulches each tree. Locally, the organization visits schools quarterly to offer support with pruning trees and caring for the space.
“Our goal is to leave schools with an orchard that’s totally primed to be successful,” said Michael Flynn, the organization’s co-director.
On Monday, Common Vision joined volunteers from Sierra Harvest and students from Nevada Union’s Green Academy, environmental committee and environmental agriculture program to dig holes in the earth, drop in the trees and carefully refill the holes with dirt.
Volunteers talked to the students about the importance of orienting the plant in relation to the sun and ensuring that the tree has proper space for drainage.
Bedayn said she was excited that the space would provide students the opportunity for hands-on learning, as well as encourage them to spend more time outside during breaks and lunch.
“To be able to come out and reconnect with nature, it’s really inspiring,” Bedayn said.
Senior Raina Garfinkel, another member of the school’s environmental committee, said she has learned several new things while participating in the planting, including how to care for and treat a plant’s roots before dropping it into the ground.
Garfinkel said the orchard will also provide a good learning experience for students who aren’t actively involved in environmental education or issues.
“It’s nice when kids who have never had their eyes open to any of this stuff get to come out here,” she said.
Mikal said the space will not only give teachers the opportunity to hold class sessions outdoors, but will also host projects that will be incorporated into the Green Academy’s curriculum. Mikal said the group hopes to continue developing the space, eventually adding a self-sustaining garden with herbs and flowers.
By participating in the planting, students are able to better understand how important it is that they take an active role in thinking about and caring for the environment, said Flynn.
“It’s our hope collectively to just impart our belief in them as some of the creative thinkers that are going to make a difference in the coming decades,” he said.
That’s the long-term goal of the Green Academy, Frisella said — to help students develop a global awareness of environmental challenges, and be equipped to help solve them.
“We want our students to promote sustainability in the local and global community and go out there and be pioneers in the environmental sustainability and renewable energy industries,” he said.