NEW PORT RICHEY
Matt Neck never counted on graduating from Gulf High School. He ditched classes for most of his freshman, sophomore and junior years. He can't say exactly why. School just didn't seem that much fun. By the time what would have been his senior year rolled around this past fall, 18-year-old Neck had almost no credits on his transcript. He expected to drop out before the first semester ended. Instead, he found renewal in Bibb lettuce, radishes and marigolds.
Neck's gardening experience came as part of Gulf High's GED exit option program, designed to give seniors who are behind in credits an alternative path toward on-time graduation. Teachers in the program decided to have students create a small garden out by the portables in back to learn about planning, teamwork, budgets and related lessons.
"If they were successful in a traditional school setting, they wouldn't be with us," counselor Kelly Davey explained. "We needed to get them something motivating, real world, hands-on. It worked."
At first, the 35 students were "iffy" about the idea of sifting compost, digging rows for seeds and tending vegetables and flowers. The plants might die, they reasoned. They hadn't ever done anything like this before, and it might not work.
But once they got started, Neck said, "that was what kept me coming." Instead of failing out, he made the honor roll and was a September student of the month.
"It was a motivation, a real- life experience" classmate Josh Clark, 18, agreed.
Davey and others in the Pasco school district are upset that this program likely will go by the wayside as part of a national effort to standardize graduation rates.
At this time a year ago, 15 students had dropped out of the program, Davey said. This year, just two have left.
The students even come on Fridays, when they have no scheduled classes, just to pick weeds, rake and water.
"They're like family," Davey said. "It's bonding."
The pride is evident in the students as they work in the small, neatly tended garden. They beam as they brag about the section they planted, the piece of the fence they built, the part of the adjacent storage building wall they painted.
They also note how other students at the school complimented the garden and refrained from dumping milk cartons and other trash in it.
"Some kids even wanted to know how to get into the gardening class," said Lauren Branson, 17.
Robert Lagana, who hopes to run his own landscaping business, focused intently on raking the dirt between rows, loosening the weeds for others to gather.
"I really like it a lot," Lagana, 18, said afterward, removing the headphones from his ears in order to have a conversation. "It gives me a way to get away from all the stuff."
The garden gave 18-year-old Nicole Shinafelt a sense of purpose, one she never had before.
Before this year, Shinafelt didn't care about school and felt like the teachers didn't care about her. She figured she would just become a dropout like others she knows.
"As we started to do it, I felt really good about myself," she said about the garden. "I never finished anything before."
Now Shinafelt is on track to graduate on time, along with most of her peers in the class. She plans to go to college, with a goal of becoming a social worker.
She, Neck and others said they were grateful to have a second chance to succeed in high school, and glad to have given the garden a chance despite their reservations.
"It was a cool project to do," Neck said. "I've never done anything like it in school or even out of school."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.
"If they were successful in a traditional school setting, they wouldn't be with us. We needed to get them something motivating, real world, hands-on. It worked."
Kelly Davey, a Gulf High counselor who uses gardening as a hands-on, experience for students in the school's GED exit option program