High School Environmental Education
Unbound by classroom walls, students at Essex Technical High School are tackling 21st-century environmental issues. In the process, they’re transforming everything we know about vocational schooling.
Essex Technical High School is a 40-acre complex in Hawthorne.
Photos by Kindra Clineff
When Geena Stasiek applied to Essex Technical High School in 2014, she wasn’t thinking about a career in cosmetology or automotive repair. Instead, the Ipswich native wanted to battle global warming.
“I came here because I was passionate about the environment, and I knew I could go to college and be ahead of other students who didn’t come here,” says Stasiek, now 16.
The 11th grader is one of nearly 1,400 students enrolled at Essex Technical High School, a 40-acre complex of classrooms, labs, barns, and woodlands that opened two years ago in Hathorne. The $135 million project merged Essex Agricultural and Technical High School with North Shore Regional Vocational School, and it now serves 17 North Shore districts.
But Essex Tech is not your grandpa’s vocational or agricultural school. While it offers carpentry, culinary arts, and equine science, it also offers environmental programs that rival those at many colleges. From Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping to hydroponic farming, students use cutting-edge technology to address coastal pollution, species extinction, and food scarcity. And with a curriculum that blends hands-on training with the academic rigor of a prestigious prep school, Essex Tech is forging a generation of highly skilled environmental stewards.
That journey begins as students vie for coveted spots at the school. This year, about 1,000 students applied for 360 openings. Acceptance depends on grades, attendance, discipline records, guidance counselor recommendations, and an in-person interview. Admissions officials look for students who will thrive in an interactive educational experience.
“Active, project-based learning is a big piece of who we are, so we’re looking for students who want to dive into that,” says Sandy Goldstein, Essex Tech’s guidance and admissions coordinator.
Once admitted, freshmen contemplating environmental careers choose from Environmental Technology, Natural Resource Management, Sustainable Horticulture, and Biotechnology. They then immerse themselves in fieldwork that takes them from the labs to the marshlands, from the North Shore to New Brunswick. So, what do they actually do out there?
On the final day of classes last June, Ann Witzig, a teacher in the Environmental Technology program and former marine biologist, shows me some recent projects. She starts with a set of GIS maps—intricate, colored displays that might have been produced by the Division of Marine Fisheries. Instead, they are the product of field data collection by 11th graders.
Students trekked through the Newburyport and Salisbury estuaries, testing water for excessive nitrogen caused by wastewater runoff. They compared their data with state studies of shellfish E. coli, confirming information that is vital for shellfishermen and consumers.
In the nearby lab, seniors are taking down maps that answer some unnerving questions. What will rising sea levels do to the North Shore by 2100? And how will they affect low-income, minority, and non-English-speaking communities? The students presented their findings to a dozen local and state officials last May.
“[The government] is doing these analyses, but they’re doing them right now,” says Witzig. “Our students found that economic exposure to storm surge in Danvers is in the billions of dollars. And if officials don’t account for getting these people out, it’s going to be a major problem.”
Not to be outdone, sophomores have their own pet project. They fight species extinction by raising endangered Atlantic salmon in the school’s 250-gallon aquaculture tanks. Once the fish reach smolt stage, they are released into the Merrimack River.
According to Witzig, more than 90 percent of Environmental Technology students attend four-year colleges, including Worcester Polytechnic Institute, University of Connecticut, and University of Maine at Orono.
If all this sounds too advanced for a teenager, consider junior Julie Silva of Saugus. As freshmen, she and her friends developed a motivational mantra.
“It’s not rocket science—it’s harder,” says Silva. “But it’s great.”
Just outside the school, a paved road divides academic buildings from bright red barns where students tend to livestock. Jill Rasmus, a third-year teacher in the Natural Resource Management (NRM) program, guides me down the road to a dirt path, which enters the woods and rolls out under a canopy of tall trees.
Rasmus teaches resource management skills, preparing students for careers in the National Park Service, conservation law, civil engineering, and other high-demand fields. The first step, though, is helping budding environmentalists understand a day on the job. “In Natural Resource Management,” says Rasmus, “we spend most of our time outside.”
As we approach Big Pond, a group of 15 sophomores is passing around a set of binoculars, trying to glimpse a beaver across the water. The students recently completed a beaver wetlands project, gathering water samples and surveying the land as the toothy animals flooded nearby trails.
Another project saw students canoeing the Ipswich and Merrimack Rivers, testing the water with IDEXX Colisure technology to ensure compliance with EPA regulations.
“We get to do things we wouldn’t normally do until college, and some of these things they don’t even do in college,” says Sam Shirley, a third-year student in the NRM program.
He’s right. From hydrology to radio telemetry and sustainable forestry, the program’s hands-on training puts students far ahead of most college freshmen. They also come away with multiple certifications, and co-op programs place students in esteemed environmental organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and Mass Audubon.
For parents concerned that a lack of classroom walls means a lack of structure, junior Gabriel Vigna disagrees.
“You have to bring the kind of thinking you use in class to the outside,” says Vigna. “We’re not thinking, ‘Oh, we can go on a nice stroll.’ We still gotta do our stuff—find answers to what we’re researching.”
Across all programs, students alternate weekly between shop and academic classes, including Advanced Placement courses and humanities electives. They can also earn advanced college credit at North Shore Community College.
From the state’s perspective, the school’s holistic programming seems to be working. According to the Department of Education, 100 percent of Essex Tech’s students passed the MCAS English exam in 2015, and 96 percent scored “proficient” or higher. In science, 81 percent scored proficient or higher, nine points better than the state average.
Back in the main greenhouse, teenagers are cleaning up after a plant sale. They’re part of the Sustainable Horticulture program, where classroom lessons in plant biology take life in the garden, and the fruits of labor are inventoried, priced, and sold at the student-run floral shop.
Formerly known as Greenhouse Management and Floriculture, the program used to focus on preparing students to be florists. Now, teachers are upgrading the curriculum for a changing job market. A new hydroponic greenhouse helps students learn growing techniques to increase vegetable yields, using less water and space than traditional farming. Organic farming is also on the horizon, along with Community Supported Agriculture and freight farming to meet the demand for locally grown foods.
“That’s where the sustainable jobs are,” says Martha Verrington, who teaches plant science. “People want locally grown. They don’t want to pay fuel taxes for items that come from Argentina. They don’t want GMOs.”
Sustainable jobs are also in biotechnology. According to MassBio, an industry nonprofit, Massachusetts has added more than 5,000 biotech jobs since 2007, second only to California. Essex Tech launched its biotechnology program in 2014.
“We look to make sure our programs match up to the labor market,” says Brad Morgan, principal at Essex Tech. “Biotech is exploding, so students are leaving here a couple steps ahead of students at traditional high schools.”
But the biotech program is not just preparing teens for careers in the pharmaceutical industry. According to teacher Arlyssa LaPorte, there is significant crossover between biotechnology and environmental science. “When we’re looking at water pollution, biotechnology uses bacteria and enzymes to clean wastewater,” says LaPorte, who spent a decade in oncology research. “In agriculture, scientists use biotechnology to help food grow and be more productive to feed more people.”
Last year, LaPorte’s students took part in the Amgen Biotech Experience, modifying genes to make bacteria glow red. Now the program is eyeing a joint project with Environmental Technology and NRM, collecting and testing ticks for Lyme disease and comparing results across North Shore communities. LaPorte says students who might not otherwise study biotechnology are attracted to the hands-on labs.
It’s a holistic approach to environmental education, and a new take on traditional notions of vocational schooling. “The stereotype is that you come here if you don’t want to do work and you don’t want to go to college,” says Ipswich’s Geena Stasiek. “It’s not like that at all. You do extra work. Everyone here is intelligent in her own way. We’re not a group of kids that came here to be lazy.”
Essex Technical High School
565 Maple Street, Hawthorne