Laurel students with special needs learn to grow microgreens, hydroponically

Phillips Special Education Day School launches hydroponic job training program

At the front of a classroom in Phillips Special Education Day School in Laurel, layers of microgreens grow in trays of water instead of soil.

"We had to lay out the burlap," said Phillips student Brittney Williams, 18. "And put just the right amount of water, otherwise the plants will die."

Another student, 16-year-old Davontae Conner, said, "They started sprouting in two days!"

Davontae, Williams and other Phillips students learned how to grow the microgreens as part of Growing Futures, a hydroponic education and job training program that the school officially launched on Wednesday.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using nutrient solutions instead of soil. It cuts down on water and pesticide use, according to Henry Gordon-Smith, director of business development for Blue Planet Consulting. BPC partnered with Phillips to set up the school's hydroponic system and create a 300-page curriculum that can be used to teach sustainability and hydroponic practices.

The Phillips School in Laurel is a non-profit educational organization that serves students ages 6-22 from around the Baltimore-Washington region who have "significant learning and emotional challenges," according to the school's website.

"Many of them do not go onto college, but onto jobs," said Piper Phillips Caswell, president & CEO of PHILLIPS Programs. "We see [Growing Futures] as a stepping stone into a certification or trade school program, to give them more credentials as they go into the job market."

Conner pointed at each tray of microgreens, identifying them as mustard greens, water cress and amaranth.

"I tried this one, and it had a little spice to it," he said. "This one in the middle has a mild taste. And this one has no taste."

"The microgreens work especially well, because the plants grow in two weeks, and this lends itself to the school calendar. You can start and stop," said Caswell. "And it's engaging because they grow quickly, so students can see the growth."

Microgreens are the small seedlings of vegetables, and researchers at the University of Maryland and the United States Department of Agriculture found that they contain larger quantities of nutrients than mature versions of the same plants. The tiny ingredients are frequently used by chefs as garnishes and toppings.

As Growing Futures expands, the school plans on selling the microgreens to local farmers markets and restaurants, Caswell said.

"We'll have kids involved in marketing and selling the product, so they get that authentic job experience," she said.

The school is currently looking for a funder to support the addition of a commercial kitchen, said Debbie Alexander, the school's director of development, so that students can learn how to use the produce to make and sell food products, like salsas and soups.

"We all need something to do, and this program helps students get that," she said.

After the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the program on Wednesday, attendees sampled white pizza with some of the students' hydroponically-grown microgreens on top.

How did it taste?

"Good," said 18-year-old student Kristen Kokonis.

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