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Special Education Gets a Farm Twist

In rainy weather, students at most schools are likely to stay indoors and you are unlikely to find any children out in the open or on the playgrounds. However, the North Florida School of Special Education, which is off Mill Creek Road on the east side of downtown Jacksonville, is a hive of activity after a spell of rain in the morning. This is due to the range of activity that takes place on the school farm when plants are at their best.

The range of activities

All these activities take place on the 3.5 acre farm at the school and students between the ages of 6 and 22 years with intellectual disabilities call the place "Berry Good Farms.".The activities include the cultivation of many kinds of fruits and vegetables, aquaculture to produce fertilisers and even tanks of fish like Tilapia to be harvested. The harvested crops are transported to the kitchen on site where the children learnto cook what they have grown and even produce a line of products for sale including their popular organic dog biscuits.

About North Florida School of Special Education

Established in 1992, the mission of the school is to improve the lives of children who are between 6 and 22 years old and who suffer from moderate intellectual disabilities by inculcating the necessary skills. It aims to provide comprehensive personalised plans for educating every student which will provide for their academic requirements and give them a reasonable chance of success in life. The programs are conducted through the use of integrated team approaches using teachers who are supported by staff well versed in physical, occupational and social skills.

About Berry Good Farms

The students in Transition (between the ages of 16 years and 22 years) as well as students in post-graduation (over 22 years old) have entered this new program of horticulture to produce agricultural products to be sold to students, the community and catering establishments and restaurants shopping for locally grown products. The objective is to help these students affected with intellectual disabilities to fulfil the needs of the community for local enterprise and entrepreneurship while fulfilling their educational needs.

The vision is to establish a sustainable and viable enterprise and ultimately help its students to achieve employment with monetary compensation and empower them to become productive members of the community. The facilities include a 60' x 30' greenhouse to allow the production of agricultural products round the year as well as a program for aquaculture and aquaponics. The aquaculture/aquaponics facility is integrated with the greenhouse facility and uses two large fish tanks for the raising of fish such as native sunfish.

Lessons from the project

Similar institutions can learn from the finding of a project that therapy actually takes place because the students love the peace and calm that the farm provides. It allows the expansion of the current educational curriculum of the North Florida School of Special Education and vocational training programmes can now include agriculture and the production of agricultural goods. Perhaps, most importantly, it facilitates the transformation of students with intellectual disabilities into members of the community who can make a positive contribution and find employment in the process.

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