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Training the Workers of Tomorrow

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Students and graduates of Campbell High stand with Derek Chow (in front at far right) in one of the school’s greenhouses. Above right are star apples and strawberries grown by the students.

Farming for the Future

At Campbell High, it looks like they are growing food, but they are actually growing citizens and stewards of the land.

Photos: Rae Huo

There are dozen a students swarming around, but otherwise the scene at this 2-acre patch at Campbell High School does not look like a school.

A glistening, ripe strawberry peeks from among a bundle of leaves where others hang, half ripe or still green. Nearby, kale and green onions rise from neat beds sitting on concrete blocks.

Across the way, papaya trees are heavy with fruit, dozens of heads of organic butter lettuce and young bok choy thrive in neat rows in a greenhouse and a pondful of tilapia swim lazily in the shade of a mamaki tree.

Welcome to one of the 29 learning centers at 25 of Hawaii’s public high schools. (A few schools have more than one and a handful don’t have any.) This center at Campbell is one of the state’s best at preparing students for the workforce.

The Agriculture/Natural Resources Learning Center was officially launched at Campbell in 1992 after unofficially beginning years earlier. Over that time, more than 3,000 students have tried everything from farming to niche horticulture to business.

“This makes me see there are a lot of opportunities,” says Troy Cordeiro, 16, whose father, Callen Cordeiro, also graduated from the agriculture program at Campbell and now serves in the military.

“It makes me see you don’t have to focus on just one thing,” says Troy. “There are options. But learning respect and respecting relationships are two of the most important things.”

Aaron Araki, left in white shirt, often comes back to his alma mater to mentor students.

Sophomores, juniors, seniors – 150 young people from age 14 on up - are part of this center each year. They learn about sustainability, aquaponics, aeroponics and even how to analyze orchid cells. They plant tiny sprouts of lettuce without soil and learn how to control bugs without pesticides. They grow and harvest and cook – all under teacher Derek Chow’s guidance.    

Chow began the program hoping it would prime students for jobs in agriculture, but that aim has expanded.

“Another goal of ours is to prepare students for leadership, college and career success so that, whatever job they’re looking at, they will have the cooperative skills, like teamwork,” he says. “We develop character, work ethic, those foundational attitudes that will successfully carry them through anything they go into.”

Those skills are already evident among Chow’s students. When Hawaii Business visited during spring break, a dozen students showed up on campus by 6 a.m. to pick fresh vegetables, help Chow explain the program and cook a healthy farm-to-table lunch for the visitors.

These students call Chow’s classes their favorites and say that he not only teaches them about plant growth, biology, chemistry and sustainability, but how to be good citizens.

Some of the school’s tools


Oranges and papayas, a few of the 30 crops grown at Campbell.

“The teamwork we learn builds leadership for the future,” says 17-year-old Carl Ragsac. “And we’re using sustainability methods to help grow and refresh our gardens.”

The tour reveals the students are not just learning how but why.

“We just potted the kale,” says Brandon Ruiz, 17. “People are now putting it in smoothies because it’s healthy.”

Many of the students have taken their new skills home with them, either to start gardens for their families, or to work with aunties, uncles, or grandparents on gardens already under way.

At his home, Ruiz says, “We grow all sorts of things, like green onions, lettuce, bok choy, bananas.”

Kayla Tells, 16, says, “I help my mom and grandma out with gardening at my grandma’s house.”

Chow’s bonds with the community create many opportunities for students to try jobs, from landscaping at nearby golf courses, to working in Waianae orchid farms, to paid jobs with landscaping businesses.

He’s even been the inspiration for students choosing culinary arts programs and works closely with chef Alan Wong, who often contributes his expertise, supplies the school with books, and regularly checks out the school’s organic gardens. He’s even used some of the produce in his upscale restaurants.

Sal Delizo is a 1991 graduate who eventually started his own landscaping business. “When I was in the program,” he remembers, “they were just spearheading that school-to-work deal. It was such fun and we saw results, and that’s what sparked my interest. We did the actual planting and then we cooked and ate what we grew!

“For me and my buddies, the whole thing was, we’ve got to join Mr. Chow’s class so we can eat all that good food! Right out of high school two of us went to work for the golf course. After I went to college, I was the assistant superintendent at the new Ewa Beach Golf Course. I eventually became an irrigation mechanic at the Hawaii Prince (golf course), in charge of the whole irrigation system.”

Many of Chow’s graduates stay in touch and return to mentor current students. One is Aaron Araki, a 1995 graduate who was entranced with orchid horticulture – to the point of growing hundreds of plants in his parents’ backyard.

“In my sophomore year, I had a class in agriculture mechanics and agriculture design and it opened my ideas to what was possible,” says Araki, who went on to earn both bachelor and master of science degrees in tropical horticulture at UH. Today, he protects the Islands from invasive species and threatening diseases as an inspector with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Today’s students have the same enthusiasm that Araki did almost two decades ago. “This class has given me an opportunity to look forward to a good future and new possibilities,” says Luhama Loketi, 17.

That enthusiasm fills Chow with great satisfaction.

“Our goal also,” he says, “is to instill lifelong responsibility for stewardship of our land, our ocean and our natural resources so the many generations to come can enjoy what we have today.”


Hawaii’s Top 10

Here are Hawaii’s top high school learning centers, based on an evaluation by the state Department of Education.

  1. Campbell  Agriculture/Natural Resources
  2. Kaiser  Communication Arts and Technology
  3. Waialua  Career and Technical Education
  4. Castle  Performing Arts
  5. Pearl City  Performing Arts/Music
  6. Maui  Science and Technology
  7. Baldwin  Performing Arts
  8. Kaimuki  Performing Arts
  9. Mililani  Science and Technology
  10. Roosevelt  Media and Technology

Note: Many schools have more than one learning center.

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