W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences
Many people might see an overgrowth of vines on a fence as just an eyesore, but Gregory Smith saw it as an opportunity. The fence separated Wissahickon Valley Park from the cow pasture at the W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences in Roxborough, where Smith teaches natural resource management to senior class students. Aware that Friends of the Wissahickon welcomed volunteers, he contacted FOW’s field coordinator, Cindy LaRue, in 2019 with an idea for a partnership.
Smith proposed that the students who were studying watershed conservation could remove the invasive vines from the fence line, and LaRue could teach them how to master the use of specific tools for the job. As FOW volunteer stewards, they would learn about environmental sustainability as they enhanced the community by beautifying public spaces. In this outdoor classroom, the students would develop practical hands-on skills and much more.
LaRue, who previously led youth programming and community outreach with the Student Conservation Association and now oversees the Saul High School students’ work in the Wissahickon, is thrilled about the collaboration. “There is a huge lack of programs that engage high school youth in conservation activities and get them familiar with basic flora and fauna,” she said. Of course, spending time in nature is worthwhile for anyone at any age, but especially for these students. “Our school gets kids from urban environments all over Philadelphia who are growing up surrounded by cement,” said Smith. “For a lot of them, the only greenspace they have is a potted plant or the overgrown vacant lot next door.”
Every Friday, weather permitting, the group of 16 students grabs their hard hats, orange vests, and eye protection, ready for the day’s tasks. LaRue assigns projects that expose the students to invasive plant removal, the impact of soil erosion and trail restoration, water quality, and the importance of keeping pesticides and herbicides out of stormwater infrastructure. The students learn about sustainable land use practices, composting, and even how to use fish to fertilize and feed crops.
After this labor-intensive work, the students go home tired but with a stronger work ethic and sense of purpose and accomplishment that will stay with them beyond graduation. The students also leave with résumé-worthy experience, not only in community service but also in real skills that Smith, a Career and Technical Educator (CTE), notes are at the level you would expect to acquire through an internship, all of which can translate into future jobs or college.
Being outdoors makes for a more relaxed atmosphere than the traditional classroom, but LaRue’s strict attention to safety as the students work with sharp tools, along with clear direction and instruction, makes them focus and take their time. There’s also plenty of fun. And the students have enjoyed every minute of the experience. “Before we left for winter break, we had hot chocolate and s’mores, made the way they’re supposed to be—over an open fire. Most of the kids had never had it that way,” said Smith.
After being sidelined for a while due to COVID-19, the Saul High School partnership with FOW resumed last year, and the students returned in March for the spring semester.