By Tali Haller
Some students thrive better in a hands-on learning environment. Knowing this, Olympia High School, GRuB (a community organization dedicated to connecting people through food), New Market Skills Center, and the Olympia School District Career and Technical Education Department worked together to pilot a School Initiative Program, called the GRuB-Bear Program.
Out of their initial efforts in 2011 came an engaging academic program in which students gain high school credits while working on a farm. After only two years, the program has seen tremendous success. According to Blue Peetz, co-founder of GRuB and a teacher in the GRuB-Bear program, grade point averages (GPA’s) have gone up, behavioral issues at school have gone down, and most students have developed a greater sense of purpose and pride.
Matt Grant, Principal at OHS, has noticed the enormous changes that the GRuB-Bear program can make in students lives, “One student, who used to never speak up at school, volunteered to talk at an assembly related to bullying. He spoke about being ridiculed for his size and lack of hygiene due to the water being shut off at his house,” described Grant.
Many students that come to GRuB aren’t fully compatible with the traditional school setting, said Peetz. “A lot of the students we work with had to grow up really fast. For them, it’s like, ‘What’s the point of school if I don’t know where my dinner is coming from tonight,’” he explained.
At GRuB, they work to build meaning into the curriculum. “We want to show students that they are responsible, powerful individuals who can and do make a difference in the community,” stresses Peetz.
Current GRuB student Austin McCoy was diagnosed with ADHD in third grade. “Since doing GRuB, I’ve seen a big improvement in my grades. They’re all A’s this year,” he said with a smile. McCoy feels that he thrives in an environment where he can put his extra energy to use. “I also love how appreciated I feel. GRuB is like a family,” he adds.
Unlike many alternative schools, GRuB remains structured. After attending three morning classes at OHS, students spend the afternoon at GRuB where they receive credits in horticulture, biology, American history, and entrepreneurship.
Students begin their day by checking in with each other in a caring, conscientious manner. Being a part of this experience for one day, I can definitely say I felt a palpable support and appreciation within the group. Students quickly opened up about the events of their weekends, how they were feeling, and what they were looking forward to in the upcoming week. Especially unique, was the absence of technology.
After the check-in, students do a team-building activity and then get to work. Mondays and Wednesdays are harvest and farm work days, Tuesdays are lab days, Thursdays focus on team-building activities, and Fridays feature “Straight Talk” where the students reflect back on the week they’ve had, asking themselves, “What did I do well and what could I improve on?” They then share their thoughts and give feedback to each other in kind, loving ways.
“What’s really cool about Straight Talk,” said Peetz, “is that even me, the person in charge, gets feedback from the group.” According to him, this type of reflection helps everyone grow and creates accountability.
According to Peetz, the relevancy of what students learn is a huge aspect of the program. “We’re doing science labs in the garden, testing the pH of soil, learning how agriculture has impacted the world for centuries; all of which is relatable to what the students are doing with the farm,” said Peetz.
“The skill set that GRuB teaches is going to look great for colleges,” said Alex Otness, another GRuB student. “Colleges these days are looking for students who stand out and what we do at GRuB definitely stands out.”
Each year the GRuB curriculum varies somewhat depending on the needs of the farm. Past GRuB students have had the opportunity to grow food for the community, raise funds for a charitable organization, meet the mayor of Olympia and present to him on behalf of a cause, and even pass a bill. One past GRuB student earned over $40,000 to attend The Evergreen State College from scholarship money alone.
Even more than the skill set, Peetz emphasizes the mindset that GRuB teaches.
“I’m not here to turn everyone into an organic farmer. I’m here to help young people realize that they have a lot of power, that there is a lot of opportunity in this world, and that if you apply yourself, you can turn your passions into jobs and become successful,” he said. “We use farming as the vehicle but the important thing is the community work and purpose.”
What’s more, all produce grown through the GRuB-Bear Program is delivered to the OHS cafeteria for every student to dine on. GRuB delivers a variety of organic produce: mashed potatoes, beets and carrots, salad mixes, etc.
With such great results, other schools are wanting in on the action. In fact, Capital High School is already putting they’re own GRuB program to work. “OHS has served as the tester school,” said Peetz. “We’re still in the process of working out the kinks, but soon we hope to create an affordable and replicable program model that other schools can get on board with.”
“It’s a program that has so much to offer and just keeps on giving,” said Peetz. “I hope to see it incorporated into many more schools, but for now, Olympia School District can just be one of the best fed schools in the nation.”