Classroom of the Week | Getting their hands dirty? These North Adams students 'love it'

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NORTH ADAMS — Each year, dozens of people visit the North Adams Public Schools Off-Campus Traders shop, located at 931 South Church St., to pick up their holiday greenhouse favorites, from poinsettias to cyclamen, evergreen wreaths to kissing balls.

But behind the scenes, for the past 22 years, dozens of students and staff have been putting their hands to work year-round to cultivate an environment of calm and beauty for students' learning and growth. Their commitment to this cause makes the Drury High School Greenhouse Educational Program a worthy honoree as a "Classroom of the Week."

On Thursday morning, Drury students Kristy Landry, Ashley Macksey, Karina Beagle, Abigail Morrison and Kameron Smith worked together to prepare holiday gifts and greenhouse displays for this Saturday's Greenhouse Holiday Sale event, which will take place from 9 a.m. to noon.

"Nice job," greenhouse manager Molly Lewis told Macksey as she transplanted a verdant sage seedling into a larger herb pot.

"Thank you," Macksey said, smiling.

A self-described "neat freak," Macksey said she doesn't mind rolling up her sleeves and digging into dirt for the gardening cause.

"I love it," she said. "We all work together and we all get along. It's nice here."

Landry said that seeing the group's plants and flowers and works being sold or donated to the community makes her feel "accomplished."

Every dollar spent on a plant or holiday gift there has helped to keep the greenhouse program running. The site includes three greenhouses, as well as about a half-dozen community gardening plots for rent, outdoor produce and flower gardens and a grassy landscape for students to work as they sharpen their horticulture skills. The garden shop is outfitted with wooden display stands handcrafted by alumni of the former Drury woodworking shop program, along with hand-painted and decorated signs, ornaments and other rustic handicrafts fashioned by current students.

The building also includes a communal kitchen and laundry, computer lab and a large open classroom where students of all abilities can practice life skills, from budgeting to folding laundry to applying for a job.

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Each day, students cook and eat together, too. Next semester, the program will offer a "Cooking to Science" component, during which students will scientifically observe and chart the growth of the fruits, vegetables and herbs they plant, and of course, will get to taste the outcomes of their work.

"It's really positive here. We get to learn how to plant, learn how to cook. It's homey," Morrison said.

The support at the site expands to fit the needs of middle and high school students and graduates in transition to adulthood with moderate to severe disabilities. In addition to a physical therapy room, there's a staff of 10 teachers trained to work with students with special needs, along with high school student mentors. Nearly 30 students from the district's middle and high schools rotate out of their classrooms at Drury to spend time working in the Greenhouse Educational Program. Every activity that happens there is driven by the students, program coordinator April Nutting says.

"We provide a safe, colorful setting to help make sure everyone feels like they belong here," she said.

Once that tone is set, she said, students can flourish.

Kameron Smith, 18, said he likes that the greenhouse building doesn't look or feel like a desk-and-chairs "classroom setting." Since he was a kid, he says he's always enjoyed mowing the lawn and working outdoors.

He just joined the program this week, and has already signed on to be the program's intern. Through the holiday season, he's helping to keep up the shop. In the spring, the aspiring landscaper will be in charge of manicuring and maintaining the grounds.

"I think it will be good," he said.

Nutting and Lewis hope to give the high school students more opportunities to come back and work on projects during the summer.

"I think when they can do work hands-on it gives them a sense of purpose. They're seeing growth from what they're doing," said Nutting.

"Our sole purpose is to make them self-sustainable people so that when they leave us, they're able to live on their own and be self-sufficient. Gardening, cooking, cleaning, laundry, science, setting the table — you name it, they can do it," she said.


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