Young adults in a local special education class have been spending their summer gardening and harvesting vegetables.
The students in the Community Transition Program at Niskayuna High School began by planting seeds in water jugs and growing crops in the school’s greenhouse over the winter.
Since then, they have grown a full garden of zucchinis, leeks, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, blueberries, green beans, and flowers.
“They started with nothing, and [now] we have sunflowers that are over six feet tall,” said Marcy Bulger, a teaching assistant with the special education program.
John Leclerc, the primary teacher in the Community Transition Program, said he began having his students work in the garden eight years ago because gardening was one of his personal interests. From there, he said he realized how many valuable skills the students learned from working in the garden.
“They’ve learned associated work skills, which is really what we’re trying to teach,” Leclerc said. Those associated work skills include the physical labor of moving around plants, reading seed packets, following directions, and completing a task all the way through, he added.
The Niskayuna High School garden is one of over 25 job sites that the 18- to 21-year-olds in the transition program visit. Intended for special education students to learn job and life skills after graduating from high school, the program typically has each student rotate between two to three job sites throughout the week.
Until the beginning of the pandemic, the program was based at Schenectady County Community College. Once they were able to resume in-person instruction last summer, it was easier to have the program at Niskayuna High School, rather than the community college, Bulger said.
For the 10 students Leclerc currently has in the program, between two and five hours are spent in the garden in a typical week, he said.
“[The program] gives the kids a great opportunity post-high school to get jobs or a volunteer position or [become] acclimated to being out in the community with different life skills,” Leclerc said.
“The goal is to try and get meaningful employment,” Bulger added.
Bulger said her son recently graduated from the transitional program, and now he is employed as a bagger at ShopRite.
Her 20-year-old daughter, Linda, is also currently a part of the program at Niskayuna High School. “My daughter – her confidence has been greatly impacted. She’s so proud to be able to be independent and to learn how and where food comes from,” Bulger said.
Linda Bulger, who has been in the transitional program for two years, said her favorite part of working in the garden is harvesting and watering the plants – particularly the zucchini and sugar snap peas.
“[I] learn [about] all the plants I grew,” Bulger said. “Like, different flowers, [and] different vegetables. I pick them.” In addition to working in the garden, Bulger’s other job sites include working as a bagger at the Niskayuna Co-Op, and helping with the preschool classroom at St. Kateri’s Parish School.
Jeremy Ruby, who has worked in the garden through the transitional program for the past three years, said his favorite part is the corn because “it’s mine and I weeded it.”
In addition to planting and watering the crops, the students have had the opportunity to cook with the vegetables they grew in the garden. This past Tuesday, they made blueberry pancakes with the blueberries they harvested, and soup with potatoes, onions, and zucchini, Bugler said.
According to Leclerc, having the students cook with the crops they harvest is valuable because they have to work together on cutting the vegetables, washing the dishes, and completing other necessary tasks. They feel satisfied seeing the tangible results of their work, and learning how to clean up afterward, he said.
Once the school year begins this fall, Leclerc and his students will collaborate with the high school’s horticulture club to maintain the garden, he said.
Both Leclerc and Bulger said that the skills the students are learning through their work in the garden will easily transfer to their other job sites, and to any job they hold in the future.