By KELSEY WALLING
Connections Public Charter School in Hilo will grow its farm-to-school programs with the help of federal grant.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded $12 million in Farm to School grants to 176 recipients.
Connections Public Charter School and Community Based Education Support Services, the school’s board, received $48,253.
With the grant, Connections, whose main campus is in downtown Hilo, will develop learning and food production experiences for kindergarten through 12th-grade students on leased property located off Edita Street in Hilo’s Kaumana community.
“It is great to get that kind of support and recognition for the work we’ve been doing and the plans we have articulated,” said new Principal Romeo Garcia. “This gives us an opportunity to demonstrate what we can do with that support.”
Connections currently uses the Kaumana property to foster different class projects, usually involving upperclassmen. But with the grant, Garcia said he hopes to expand what the school can do on the land and involve students from every grade.
“Students, mostly juniors and seniors, this semester will continue foundational work with the gardens and keep on expanding on the land,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to have all grades up here with younger kids starting class gardens. Teachers will also be able to have their own class projects up here as much as possible.”
Although school is not in session, teachers and classes currently are running a number of projects, including experiments with hydroponics, growing plants in a nutrient solution rather than in soil, and catching beetles that have been perpetrating rapid ohia death.
“As a school, we’ve always been focused on project-based learning. Anyone can learn theory, but greater, long-lasting learning comes from applying knowledge,” Garcia said. “We’re focused on making sure information students are getting is relevant to their lives.”
Connections has designed career and technical courses based around the property, such as land management and planning, horticulture, and animal husbandry, he said. Students also will have opportunities to use different methods for growing food, to work with the horse and goats on the property, and learn land management.
“There are so many parts of farming that can be learned,” Garcia said. “There may be students who find they are naturally inclined to work outdoors and others may decide that’s not the route they want to take.”
Since the grant is for farm-to-school programs, Connections will be growing food that can be used in the school’s kitchen. Last week, property manager Danny McDaniel brought dozens of large eggplants down to the school that were grown on the Kaumana property.
“We want students to have that moment of pride and achievement after growing something that can be eaten,” Garcia said. “With the grant, we’ll be able to involve more students and show them that they can grow things here that we can use right away in our kitchen at school.”
Students also will have more chances learn about the history of the land and “canoe plants,” which were cultivated in ancient Hawaii.
“We have always taught students about how Hawaii used to be self-sustaining and now in the modern era, we have to import nearly everything,” Garcia said. “When COVID hit, things closed down and there was a fear that we wouldn’t get what we need.
“We want to teach students that when this happens again, instead of jumping into panic mode, we have processes and ways of living off the land.”