June 15, 2014
High school teacher sows seeds of success
Students in the horticulture program at Saltfleet High School have the fortunate advantage of having Jake Kurtz as their teacher, who shares his passion for his industry with every student with whom he comes into contact.
By Jake Kurtz
Saltfleet District High School

In the winter of 2012-2013, I attended a meeting at Landscape Ontario home office in Milton, where a plan was hatched to take high school students in the Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) horticulture program and see if they could also earn their Horticulture Technician Apprenticeship - Level 1.

Looking at the training standard for Level 1, I balked. The number of classroom hours (some 360) and expectations seemed lofty for the students I normally teach in our horticulture program. Despite my reservations, and perhaps because I am a glutton for punishment, I decided we should at least try it before writing off these students as not ready, capable or mature enough for such a venture.

I regularly deal with students who might run up as many as 30 or more absences in a single semester, won’t submit written assignments without me standing over them and seem not able to do simple calculations like square footage, volume and basic trigonometry.

The other participants in the meeting, representatives from Mohawk College, MTCU, OCOT and Landscape Ontario, seemed blissfully unaware of these challenges, and so I decided, why not? The semesters came and went and the planning proceeded.

In November of 2013, I had to figure out how to fill a minimum of 12 seats to run the program. I started recruiting from within my green industries classes, stopping former students in the hall to try to interest them, and even called a few students who had left school to let them know about this new opportunity.  

By mid-December, I not only had my 12, but had managed to fill the class to its maximum size of 18.

At the same time, Mohawk College had yet to name an instructor for the program. I still had no idea who I would be teaching with. I tried to visualize what a college instructor would make of my motley crew and wondered how he or she might manage the teenagers who I had grudgingly become accustomed to. As luck would have it, a colleague and former student teacher of mine was looking for work, and so Adam Bonin came to be our instructor.

Reece Morgan, our OYAP consultant, worked tirelessly creating training agreements and even managed to get them all signed. We were off. What I discovered was something I knew all along, namely that attendance matters. Because these students were obligated to be in class — a requirement of the apprenticeship program — they didn’t miss class.

The students rose to the challenge, preparing their own plant ID cards, putting together turf management proposals, calculating square footages, volumes of base materials and linear feet of paver restraints and conducting their own plant science experiments.

All of a sudden the tests and assignments that I had developed over the past five years became not only relevant, but useful from an evaluation standpoint. Imagine being able to ask a student why we might want to use a high nitrogen fertilizer and getting an answer rather than a blank stare. The weeks progressed and to our collective consternation the weather, rather than improving, seemed to worsen. The students, and instructors, went stir crazy.

Adam and I scrambled. Rather than assessing the turf on our sports field, we conducted turf trials in our greenhouse. We commandeered a back corner of the school’s construction shop, where the students pre-fabricated an arbor on the assumption that we would be able to install footings.

We called on our co-op employers to come in and speak to the students, and even arranged for the students to go out and build displays for trade shows, so they could lay pavers and build walls. As luck would have it, the weather did improve and we finally got out on the grounds.  

My focus turned to co-op and the task of placing all these capable young people. My initial attempts to contact new employers were met with the kind of skepticism I expected. Many of the employers had previous experience with high school co-op and found the experience somewhat lacking.

When I managed to speak for any length with an employer about what we were doing and the type of students, I met with tentative enthusiasm. I explained that this is an almost ideal situation for an employer. As a co-op employer, you get a trained young worker for two months for free and the school board even covers the WSIB premiums. As we all know, the truth comes out on the jobsite when the rain, snow or heat comes and the clay is harder than concrete.

At the time of this writing, 15 students remain in the program, 13 will graduate with the full level 1 credit. Out of the 13 students who will achieve the full credit, I placed all but four. I have no doubt that I can find suitable placements for them.

My purpose in writing is to ask a question of industry employers. Why do I still have four students to place? When I think back to my time as a self-employed landscape contractor, I often wonder how I ended up as an educator and what might have been if I had stayed with it. Why did I leave the industry that I loved so much? What was it that made me throw in the towel?

When I left, it wasn’t to go into a cushy teaching job. I actually jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. My students ask me the same question. After many years of reflection, the answer is clear. I loved the job. As most business owners know, once you own a business, the job is about running the business and not the mower or the stone saw. The real reason I left the industry was because I never found people I could rely on to run the jobs while I attended to the business.  

It is with that in mind that I write to tell you about what we are doing at Saltfleet High School and in other SHSM programs around the province. If I had known about such a program and understood what programs like this could offer me as a business owner, I would now be running a thriving business. In fact, if teaching doesn’t pan out, I might just try to make a comeback. I know exactly where I’m going to start.

Give our students a try by contacting a school in your area that has a landscaping program. If you don’t know of one, give Sally Harvey at LO a call. Make an appointment to talk to a class about what you do, who you want to hire, and how we can put the right people to work in our industry.

“It is every employer’s duty to create awareness about the amazing career opportunities that our industry offers and to engage youth with relevant on the job training. If we do that and manage our people strategically using tools such as the LO HR Toolkit, we will resolve some of the labour gap that challenges us,” says Harvey.
Jake Kurtz is a Niagara Parks graduate with horticultural industry experience.