By Samantha Lambert
Silver Sands School is a special day school that provides educational services to students who, because of their mental functioning levels, require services beyond those offered by special educational programs in regular schools. The school serves approximately 170 students with disabilities from Okaloosa and Walton counties, ranging in age from 3 to 22.
“Our goal as a school is to teach our kids to communicate. We want them to grow relationships with the community that will continue for a long time to come,” says principal Jon Williams.
About 15 years ago, Silver Sands had a greenhouse that the faculty and students really enjoyed. In 2017, teacher Beth Wright suggested having one again, and Williams applied for a grant for a “Growth House” from Okaloosa County Public Schools Foundation and Impact 100 of Northwest Florida.
Okaloosa County Public Schools Foundation is a not-for-profit community-based foundation dedicated to supporting and extending the educational opportunities of all individuals within Okaloosa County.
Impact 100 of Northwest Florida is a philanthropic group of women who, as part of their mission, financially support nonprofit organizations in Northwest Florida. The group awards grants based on how the grant can be tied to the community. They awarded a grant to the Okaloosa County Public Schools Foundation for Silver Sands School of over $126,500 for the “Growth House.”
The “Growth House” at Silver Sands opened in the fall of 2018. It is an aquaponic greenhouse where fertilizer comes from fish for the plants. There are two 500-gallon tubs of goldfish and koi. The water is heated during the day by the sun. In the hotter months, the greenhouse uses a giant evaporator cooler. The temperature is kept at 85 degrees.
There are three main systems used in the “Growth House.” One is a hydroponic deep-water culture system where plants such as cabbage and kale are grown in pieces of insulation foam in a slow flow of water. The second system is a hydro-cycle bucket system, set on a timer, where plants such as avocados and sea grapes are grown using perlite. Perlite is a shapeless volcanic glass that has high water content.
The last system is the hydroponic rail system where there is a constant high flow of water. Smaller herbs and vegetables are grown here using stone wool, a fibrous material used for hydroponic growth mediums.
Silver Sands ESE (Exceptional Student Education) teacher Dan Cheon is in charge of the “Growth House” and teaches science classes that alternate three times a week. Cheon also built plant beds right outside the “Growth House” that are divided so each class in the school has one. Plants such as lettuce, broccoli and even pineapples are planted in the beds. Local plants are donated by the Okaloosa County Master Gardeners in conjunction with the Choctaw Basin Alliance.
“Anytime the kids come out here, they love it,” Cheon tells Beachcomber. “Being able to unlock math and science to them is amazing! Everyone plants a seed. There is something for everyone to do. We use symbol sticks, which are pictures of abstract words and concepts to help the kids communicate. The Master Gardeners gave us pictures of all the steps in growing a plant, and we changed it to symbols for the kids.
“I have learned a lot out here. The biggest thing is being able to bring the kids out here and expose them to things they might not ever have contact with. They learn the process of growing and taking care of plants.”
In May, the students may participate in some dune restoration. In the long term, some students may be able to work in garden centers at nurseries after experiencing the “Growth House.”
Presently, the “Growth House” is in need of one-inch pots for planting seedlings. The school is located at 349 Holmes Boulevard in Fort Walton Beach. For more information, call 850-833-3364.