At age 17, Mindy Gonzalez of Santa Rosa knows more, literally and figuratively, about turning light in to power than do most adults. She not only grasps how alternative-energy technologies work and where they fit in the context of planetary health, but she also understands how people need to get beyond conflicts and work together to create needed change. And she learned all of this in a public high school.
For three years, Gonzalez has been a member of the Green Academy at Montgomery High School, an experimental vocational program. She didn't know much about green technologies when she started.
"I was aware of global warming," Gonzalez explains, "and wanted to know more about what we can do here in Sonoma County to help." So she signed up. What she got in the bargain was something that is missing from the typical high school experience: a current and practical context for education along with membership in a close-knit learning community.
"We all just get along," Gonzalez says. "It's different than being in a classroom. We work together as a group to make projects like sheds and model houses. What makes the program fun is the people."
It didn't start out fun, because the group, like any other, had conflicts that threatened to make it falter. According to Gonzales, the history teacher took the problems of their small group and placed them in the context of international strife and outcomes in history. "The teacher got us to look at conflicts around the world," Gonzalez remembers. "That made a difference. About halfway through the year, we got really open toward each other and our true selves came out. After that, we weren't afraid to say what we need. We made the class more personal."
Getting personal seems to be a hallmark of success here. Teacher and program co-founder Len Greenwood is personally invested in the Academy and passionate about the students, most of whom were at risk of dropping out before they joined the program. "I've been teaching for 22 years, and during that time watched the vocational arts and career training programs get eliminated by No Child Left Behind and budget cuts. As teachers retired, the programs would just get shelved," Greenwood says. "Everyone wonders about the high dropout rates, but part of it is because we've eliminated programs that 30 or 40 percent of kids use."
In the spring of 2008, Greenwood and two other district employees dreamed up a green building and design program, wrote a grant and launched the program. They started with 31 sophomores who were considered at-risk. "I think every kid in high school is at risk," Greenwood says frankly. Now there are between 90 and 100 students, sophomores through seniors, in the program learning, Greenwood says, about "everything from green building to organic farming, alternative energy and permaculture."
Sustainability is worked into the curriculum of core classes, so while students are getting basic education they are also preparing for jobs in green industries. As seniors, they do an internship with local green businesses.
"Business owners have been very supportive," says Greenwood, who has placed students in green internships around the county.
One Academy success story is Charlie Nudi, 17, who came to the program after being expelled from Santa Rosa High School. "I got off to a rough start," Nudi explains. "I was flying under the radar, on suspended expulsion. If I'd gotten in trouble, I'd have been kicked out of the district. The Green Academy really helped me. I'm really engaged. It's a lot more engaging than regular classes. We really care about alternative energy and conservation, and we're really on board with finding new ways to do things."
Nudi is now qualified to work in the solar industry after high school. He and other Academy members were also recently certified by the Sonoma County Water Agency as landscape technicians.
Greenwood says the principal is proud of the Academy and how it is helping kids stay in school. "Kids understand this is real-world learning," Greenwood says. "They look forward to class and they make statements like 'I don't want to miss this stuff.'"
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