State gives money to Hilmar district for ag programs

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 8, 2014 

The Hilmar Unified School District has received a $31,000 grant from the state Department of Education; the money will be used to develop floriculture and environmental horticulture programs on high school campuses.

Hilmar is one of 67 California school districts to share in more than $3.3 million in Specialized Secondary Program grants to develop innovative programs to help high school students learn, according to Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction.

Dick Piersma, Hilmar High agriculture instructor, said the district now is eligible to apply for implementation funds and plan a new program of study that hasn’t existed before. The grant planning will lead to two new courses and a complete career pathway for floriculture and environmental horticulture students.

Isabel Cabral-Johnson, Hilmar superintendent, greeted the state grant announcement enthusiastically.

“I’m really excited; it’s great,” Cabral-Johnson said. “It’s great the state provides an opportunity for school districts to be creative. Hopefully we will be successful with the grant.”

Piersma said the district plans to purchase two large greenhouses and one smaller one, along with a shade structure. The goal is to supply landscapers in the area with the horticultural products they need and get students job-ready after high school and college.

“We will teach students skills to be employable,” Piersma said. “This will give students an opportunity to gain experience in horticulture. We sought help from businesses in the community and got letters of support. It’s definitely a community effort.”

Piersma expects 40 to 50 high school students to be involved at the start and he hopes the number of students will more than double. Hilmar High School will partner with students at the adjacent Irwin Continuation School.

Floriculture students will learn floral design principles and create flower arrangements. Completion of the class will count for art credit. Environmental horticulture focuses on landscape design and plants that do well in the San Joaquin Valley climate, Piersma said.

Horticulture students will work with sprinkler systems and other water production equipment such as pumps. It’s an opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience in these career fields and provide workers for community businesses, Piersma said.

Hilmar High School Principal Bret Theodozio also worked on securing the planning grant. The district hopes to find out if it has secured a state implementation grant by the end of the current school year.

“This grant has a long history of helping support innovative high school programs that help students develop real world 21st-century skills,” Torlakson said. “Now that these funds are available again, California will carry on its work of developing cutting-edge programs so students can explore areas of study in a deeper way while developing their talents and skills for college or career.”

Grants range from $20,000 to $50,000 for one year and must be used for initial planning. Schools may apply for an implementation grant as funding becomes available. Since the program began 20 years ago, more than 200 programs have been funded.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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