School unveils greenhouse

By Joe Anuta

A Ridgewood school is in for a major reorganization or possible closure, but that did not stop students of Grover Cleveland High School from celebrating a new greenhouse that will be used for hands-on learning.

Students of science teacher Russell Nitchman will literally get their hands dirty as they nurture flowers and vegetables that are slowly sprouting in the greenhouse that they helped build.

“It’s tremendous,” Nitchman said. “The kids were not connected to plants before.”

The greenhouse is part of Nitchman’s plant science course for 11th- and 12th-graders. In the class, the students learn the principles of horticulture beyond a basic biology lesson that most other high schoolers get.

But the best part about the greenhouse is that the students get to see that growth in action, Nitchman said.

“One of the kids came out after they planted something three weeks before,” Nitchman said. “It was now 2 feet tall, and he said, ‘That’s the plant I planted!’”

The students began building the greenhouse in December and finally got to start using it in March.

“It’s just fun,” said Mercia Chery Jr., a student in the class. “I like plants, and it’s a good excuse to get outside.”

Chery and another student, Diki Dolme, were tending to several plants in the greenhouse, separating stems that had been planted too close together.

The foliage needs to be kept in the best condition, because in addition to providing a hands-on learning experience, the greenhouse also generates money for the program through a sale.

“The vegetables taste so much better than the ones you get in the supermarket,” said Kathy Carlson, a member of the Parent Association and mother of one of the green thumbs involved in the project. “They just pick them the same day.”

Carlson, along with other parents and the staff of the school, will line up to purchase the vegetables and flowers that the students have grown next week.

The greenhouse is in one of three garden spaces at the school, which Principal Dominick Scarola said is a great way to encourage learning.

“The best way for anybody to learn is hands-on,” he said.

But the celebration of the greenhouse comes as the school is at a crossroad.

According to the state Department of Education, the graduation rate is so low at Grover Cleveland that the school qualifies for federal aid.

But teachers at the school dispute that number and said that the large number of immigrant students who do not speak English as a first language skews the graduation rate. They usually take longer than four years to get a diploma. The school also deals with gang problems and students who miss large amounts of school.

Regardless, the school is in for a change, and the city Department of Education is the agency that decides how drastic that change will be.

Students and teachers are hoping for what is called the “transformation model,” which would require a minimum restructuring of staff. It would also require Scarola to leave.

The school was supposed to know its fate by the end of April, but the DOE has not sent word.

“We are supposed to know which status in early May,” Scarola said.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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