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RMHS greenhouse continues to serve families in need

RMHS Greenhouse As many suburban families continue to suffer from a pandemic that struck quickly, erased jobs and created financial crises over the past year, High School District 214 continues to join many others to assist those in need.

At Rolling Meadows High School, that means continuing to utilize a greenhouse that had become a focal point for the school’s groundbreaking agriculture program before COVID-19 closed all Illinois schools last March. 

The Rolling Meadows greenhouse did not stay empty or quiet for long last spring, as Rolling Meadows Principal Eileen Hart and colleagues answered her question of “We’ve got this greenhouse resource that’s not being used; could we turn it to be of good use?” with an emphatic yes.

Working with Dave Wietrzak, Rolling Meadows’ division head for career and technical education, who had played a key role in launching the greenhouse, Hart found a way to convert the idled greenhouse into an element of community outreach. 

“Back when I started the ag program, a big thing for me was that it be a part of our community outreach,” Hart said. Her own commitment to community partnership includes monthly meetings with Rolling Meadows Partners, a group that includes Dr. Natalia Nieves, a Social Services outreach specialist for the city’s police department. 

From these conversations emerged a plan to utilize the school’s greenhouse to grow items—tomato plants and red and green peppers—that could be distributed to community members who would continue to grow the plants indoors.

From there, the project took off. District 214 Education Foundation Executive Director Erin Holmes created a donation opportunity to make the effort cost-neutral, working with Home Depot to secure necessary supplies at no cost to the school or District. Through this initial effort, Hart and Wietrzak provided about 200 tomato plants, which Hart and Wietrzak turned over to Nieves for her distribution to local families.

“The families were incredibly grateful and excited to have received plants and flowers,” Nieves said. “So many families were touched by the offer of a plant to take care of and eventually benefit from its fruit. It was a very unique and beautiful way to offer hope in this terribly difficult time.”

As the pandemic stretches from month to month, the Rolling Meadows greenhouse continues to provide food. In addition to its partnership with the city, the school conducts a once-a-week school meal bag pick-up. On one recent day, for example, the high school’s Food Service staff distributed more than 50 bags of basil and about 50 bags of lettuce to local families. As winter goes on, ripened greenhouse tomatoes will be added to the mix.

In more normal times, when not pressed into service to help feed a community during a pandemic, the greenhouse and Rolling Meadows’ Agriculture Pathway offers students an array of career opportunities often overlooked in the suburbs, including veterinary science, agricultural engineering, food science and more.

Agricultural, Food and Natural Resources is one of 16 nationally recognized career clusters. Within this cluster, District 214 has established four career pathways, each of which consists of a multiyear program of academic and technical study that prepares students for a full range of postsecondary options. These pathways are:

  • Environmental Science Systems, preparing students for such careers as occupational health, safety specialist or environmental engineering technician or many others.
  • Food Products and Processing Systems, aligning students for such careers as food science technician or farm or ranch manager.
  • Plant and Animal Systems, laying the foundation for such careers as veterinarian, vet tech or animal breeder.
  • Power, Structural and Technical Systems, setting the stage for such careers as agricultural engineer or heavy equipment mechanic.

“Agriculture is not common in suburbs,” Hart said, “and yet it offers so many career options.”