Urban farm takes root at Alta Vista High School

Jane Ridgeway/Town Crier
Sophomore Alger Tovar treats Alta Vista High School’s resident goat to a garden-grown snack.

Horticulture, animal development, nutrition, sustainability: Science students at Alta Vista High School have learned a lot this year.

All that, and one more thing: When Oreo, Alta Vista’s resident goat, is mad? You get out of the way.

While the average high school sophomore in Silicon Valley might be somewhat at a loss when it comes to wrangling angry bovidae, Shannon Wernette’s students know the drill. They know when Oreo will try to steal the chickens’ feed, how to protect themselves from her horns when she’s in a mood and exactly how to bribe, coax and even carry her back into her enclosure at night.

Blink and you’ll miss Alta Vista’s urban farm, a compact but fruitful space tucked discreetly behind academic buildings. Its presence is betrayed only by occasional flurries of clucking from the four student-built chicken coops, or by one of Oreo’s leashed forays to stroll the campus – and maybe weed a few dandelions.

Now in its third year, Wernette’s farm-to-table project is always growing. Students care for the goat and a colorful medley of heritage-breed chickens. Propagated herbs grow on classroom windowsills; plants sprout from seed in a small greenhouse. In a vegetable garden tucked beside the neighboring preschool’s playground, tomatoes, peppers, squash and beans grow in orderly rows. A shady orchard will eventually yield apples, blueberries, limes and persimmons.

Hands-on help

Although the farm is Wernette’s brainchild, she said the students get the credit for making it a reality.

“Everything you see here, the students built,” she said.

Construction students not only helped design and build the four chicken coops, raised garden beds and hydroponic system, but also sourced recycled materials for them.

Meanwhile, in Environmental Science and Health Science Careers classes, students are responsible for nurturing the fledgling farm. They plant the seeds, harvest the organic, pesticide-free vegetables and care for the animals.

Sophomores Arlyn Gutierrez and Alger Tovar assumed the latter duty one recent afternoon, locking up the chickens for the evening to protect them from nocturnal predators.

“Come on, let’s go, girls,” Tovar instructed his feathered charges, sorting them into different coops. “No, not you.”

Gutierrez said the different heritage breeds – which range from sleek black chickens to extravagantly fluffy speckled ones – have distinct personalities. Cradling one of the winsome but high-strung miniature breeds, she said she favors the larger birds.

“They’re more gentle,” Gutierrez said. “They let you hold them more.”

If the students seem to know the chickens well, perhaps it’s because they’ve watched them grow through every stage of life, even “candling” them as eggs: holding each up to a bright light to check the development of the chicken embryo inside.

Urban farming yields knowledge, but also more tangible rewards: A bread-maker and breakfast sandwich-maker await students in the classroom, where they can use the eggs and produce they grew themselves for a quick meal.

Wernette said she hears the words, “Oh, these are so much better than store-bought,” on a regular basis.

As Gutierrez and Tovar herded chickens outside, a former student popped his head into Wernette’s classroom.

“I’m just going to visit you because I miss being in this class,” he said, eyeing the latest harvest strewn across a desk.

“Would you like some peas?” Wernette asked.

“I was just going to ask that,” her visitor said, shrugging off his backpack and digging in.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, according to Wernette. She said she sees students bringing friends and family to visit the farm, or notices them sneaking over at lunch to share a bite with the chickens and goat.

Wernette said she remembers with particular pride the dedication of a student who had previously had attendance problems at Los Altos High before transferring to Alta Vista. She then watched throughout the year as he not only came to school every day, but also stayed after class to work with the chickens.

“They call him ‘Birdman’ now,” she said.

Community partnerships have fueled the project as well. Palo Alto organic garden supply store Common Ground assisted the classes when they first planted the peas they’re enjoying this spring. The students, in turn, have passed their knowledge along as participants in last year’s Silicon Valley Tour de Coop, during which they welcomed cyclists to campus to visit the chickens and learn about backyard farming.

Living lab

The project is funded by an Innovative Learning Grant from the Mountain View Los Altos High School Foundation. MVLA’s innovation grants target projects that enable students to deepen their knowledge in ways that transcend the traditional classroom experience, often with a project-based or experiential learning component.

While the urban farm was originally intended as a living lab for the sciences, Wernette said the most rewarding aspect is less academic.

“It’s the ownership that the students take of the farm,” she said, “and the empathetic part of it – the compassion that they have for the animals.”

As Gutierrez rounded up the last of the chickens that afternoon, Tovar recalled watching them grow from hatchlings. One of the chicks, he said, had died at only a few months old. Born weak and ill, she was ostracized by the other chicks.

“They didn’t like her,” Tovar said. “They usually pick on the ones that aren’t the same.”

Although the year is coming to a close, Alta Vista’s urban farm will keep growing. A corps of student volunteers have signed on to care for the gardens and livestock over the summer.

Wernette said that while students appreciate the fresh air, cute animals and break from school routines, she sees another reason for their commitment to the farm.

“It gives them something to take pride in,” she said. “It gives them something to care for, and to call their own. They’re building it. We started with one coop: now we have four, a garden plot, a greenhouse.”

Tovar noted that the farm is something that feels unique and valuable about being an Alta Vista student.

“The big schools (in the district) don’t have this,” he said. “It’s just something special for this school.”

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