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Saul teacher receives honor for work with school’s agricultural program

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Charlotte Pope

Every week, the White House recognizes Americans who are doing extraordinary things in their communities through its “Champions of Change” program. Earlier this month, Jessica McAtamney, a teacher at W.B. Saul High School for Agricultural Sciences, was among 12 teachers, college students, and other educators who were honored for their innovations that are helping to move their neighborhoods forward.

McAtamney, an environmental science and agro-ecology teacher, was recognized for helping to establish a Community Supported Agriculture Project (CSA) at Saul and for her efforts in establishing a school-based recycling initiative. On Oct. 9, she traveled to Washington, where she met with representatives from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Education and sat on a panel with her fellow honorees, all members of Future Farmers of America and 4-H.

“This is an honor for me,” said McAtamney, who has been at Saul for 11 years and an in-school FFA representative for eight years.

The CSA farm, called “Henry Got Crops!”, is located on the grounds of Saul, beside Henry Avenue, and is run by Weavers Way Co-op farm staff who work closely with Saul’s program and the school as a whole. McAtamney said the program is teaching students not only about healthy eating, but also to appreciate the methods of agriculture when dealing with crop management.

Four years ago, McAtamney developed a partnership between Saul’s CSA and the Weavers Way Co-op to help bring the locally grown produce to the community. Since that time, she and her students have distributed vegetables and herbs they’ve produced through Weavers Way, with Saul receiving 50 percent of the profits.

“The kids are provided with a hands-on learning opportunity in horticultural production in a true manner,” she said.

“There are about 130 families that buy in and receive a weekly allotment of vegetables that the kids helped produce.”

In addition to working with Weavers Way to grow and distribute produce to the community, Saul students also help the co-op with community outreach, applied research, budgeting, planning, and newsletter-writing for the farm at Saul.

Saul is one of the largest agricultural high schools in the country and is home to the largest single-school FFA chapter in the state. Today, the school campus has eight buildings covering 150 acres and students are offered 15 major agricultural classes.

“These kids gain experiences that they may not be able to appreciate right now, but they’re happening,” McAtamney said.

She said that she sees the environmental science industry as gaining ground, and that students need to be well-educated about its potential.

“We need to have kids coming from urban areas that understand both the environment and the agricultural perspective of growing and production.”

Although McAtamney now has a White House honor under her belt she is not about to rest on that accomplishment. In fact, she has applied through the District to allow her student farmers to provide Saul’s cafeteria with the majority of its fresh vegetables. She said that this will bring her one step closer to getting her students to appreciate the career opportunities available in agriculture.

“Children end up impacting their environment based on the paths that they choose. They are growing now to make healthy life choices.”

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