PORTSMOUTH — On Monday morning, a small group of students filed one by one outside a classroom full of plants. It’s mid-December, but a graduation ceremony was taking place next to Churchland High’s greenhouse.
“I just want to congratulate you,” Shereen Hughes, deputy director of Wetlands Watch, told the class. “You are the first high school in the state to earn this certificate.”
The group had graduated from Wetlands Watch’s first Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professionals program for students.
For two weeks, the Norfolk-based organization taught the class – an elective course in horticulture – about how land and water interact in Hampton Roads, how human decisions affect water quality and best ways to maintain local greenery.
“Our world is changing,” Hughes told the 17 students. “You can be part of a positive change.”
Wetlands Watch has run a CBLP program for adults for about seven years, Hughes said.
Local leaders felt there was a need for more people to be trained in sustainable landscaping while working to implement conservation practices to meet federally mandated water quality goals, she said. This includes “green infrastructure” methods like planting tree buffers along waterways and using natural features for shorelines instead of bulkheads.
The main program trains landscaping professionals – contractors, engineers, architects, soil experts and more – who can earn basic or advanced certification.
But people in the industry have struggled to fill entry-level jobs, leading Wetlands Watch to look for opportunities to train young people, Hughes said.
“While we look to the landscape industry as part of our solution to better design and install stormwater management and restoration practices, we must also meet the labor needs of this industry,” she said.
The group piloted the program with an Elizabeth River Project internship program. Wetlands Watch then recently won a $158,000 grant from Norfolk-based RISE Resilience Innovations, a nonprofit that funds solutions to environmental challenges. Part of this was spent adapting Churchland High’s curriculum, chosen for its existing horticultural program with encouragement from the city’s vocational and technical education initiative that prepares students for the job market.
The two-week program combined classroom learning with hands-on activities such as identifying plants, taking soil samples and tracking water in a parking lot to see where it drains. It ended with a field trip to Old Dominion University, where landscaping staff demonstrated how information is used in the workplace.
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14-year-old freshman Joseph Blanchard said it was his favorite part, especially looking at the rain gardens on the ODU campus. He had joined the class because he loves plants and the outdoors and enjoyed learning how the Chesapeake Bay is connected to several states besides Virginia.
Jenna Futch, an 18-year-old, said that over the past year she started tending to plants as a hobby to decompress and took the course to learn how to do a better job. As a senior, she is the closest to a potential career in the field and is “definitely considering it”.
Isabella Marushia, a 15-year-old sophomore, said she had been working in her garden since she was 6 and had developed a “green thumb”. In class, she learned about pest control, fertilizers and rainwater, “things I hadn’t even thought of.”
“Doing these practices can help the berry a lot,” she said. “The degree of dependence we have on the berry – it’s important that we keep it safe and healthy so we can continue to use it.”
On Monday, each student received a certificate, a hat and a booklet with information about native plants. Hughes used the analogy of planting seeds. They gave the knowledge to the students, she says.
It’s up to them how to cultivate this – in quarries, if they choose, or simply by taking better care of their environment.
Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208, [email protected]