Bright and early on Saturday morning, April 12, the campus of Rising Sun School in Vernalis was abuzz with activity. A crew of volunteers was working in the barn, clearing away old desks, chairs and other detritus from the school’s very long history. Another group was stringing line and digging post holes, creating an area for a goat run. Weeds were being cleared from a lavender garden. Inside classrooms, paintbrushes and rollers flew, covering a primary blue with a more mature white.
The calm center of this storm of activity is Nikyra Calcagno, Program Supervisor. For her, Rising Sun is a labor of love; the realization of a long-held dream: An agriculture-based school for students with special needs.
“Transition to Success at Rising Sun,” offered to adults with moderate to severe disabilities from the ages of 18 to 22 under the auspices of Patterson Unified School District, currently serves 14 students. The program’s emphasis is on preparing them for the work world, as well as adult life. In the spirit of fostering the transition to the working world, the students are referred to as “consumers”; their peers as “coworkers.” Staff members are “team leaders.” Mornings at the school are spent working on job-related skills; life skills and functional academics are the focus in the afternoons.
The site itself has an interesting history: The original building was constructed in 1879, to serve children from the farming families in the area. Additional classrooms were added in 1954, and the school was in continuous operation until around 2009, when declining enrollment led to its closure. However, leaving the facility closed would cause the 10-acre site to revert to the original owners.
Thus came to be the wonderful program called Rising Sun – a blessing for the consumers and their families, and the opportunity of a lifetime for the former resource teacher and her staff.
But even though it hadn’t been shuttered long, serious work was needed before the school could reopen.
“It was like Pompeii,” recalled Ms. Calcagno, or “Mizz,” as the school’s consumers call her. “Everything was still in place.”
Papers, books, furniture – everything. She first spent a week “cleaning up mouse poop.” The elementary school-sized furniture was then modified for the adult clientele, and the appropriate curriculum items were kept. The school reopened in August of 2010.
A very special person was needed to take on such an ambitious endeavor, and Ms. Calcagno was obviously the right choice. She returned to college at 38 to pursue her goal of working with kids with special needs. Within a few years, she was working as a resource teacher for the Patterson Unified School District. Since 2010, her vision, dedication, and unfailingly positive attitude have taken the school from waist-high in weeds to four functioning classrooms, a cheerily painted multi-purpose room, a kitchen, a raised bed garden and small greenhouse, and an herb garden.
As much as has been accomplished, there is much more to do. The goal is to create as many “on-site enterprises” as possible. From the lavender garden, for example, the program’s participants will make items to sell at farmers markets. Unfortunately, one part of the original plan, a CSA garden (community supported agriculture), had to be scrapped – not because of gophers, surprisingly, but voracious squirrels. Ms. Calcagno hopes to eventually acquire a commercial greenhouse, among other things.
“Gardening,” she points out, “is an incredibly valuable teaching platform – for science, nutrition, math, reading, and project-based learning.”
Life is everywhere: Mini ‘air plant’ gardens and spider plants start to cover the counter next to the bunny’s cage in the art room; flats of African violets fill boxes on an adjacent shelf. Several dogs roam the property. And seedlings of many descriptions fill the shelves of the small greenhouse just outside the multi-purpose room door. In keeping with the ag-themed, enterprise-based focus of the school, Calcagno works constantly to devise ways for the school’s consumers to grow things that they can sell, regardless of their individual abilities.
One of the ultimate goals, when agricultural enterprises such as the lavender garden and commercial greenhouse are up and running, is to bring kids in the District’s after school and other programs to the site. This would allow them to explore growing food, nutrition and other ag-related subjects, while simultaneously providing the program’s consumers the absolutely invaluable opportunity to serve as teachers.
When asked about the biggest challenge she’s faced, the perpetually sunny Calcagno had to stop and think.
“Funding,” she finally said, and then, laughing, “and the squirrels!”
The most surprising thing to her, so far, has been the support the school has received on the Community Work Days they’ve held.
“It’s been amazing!” she said, “I never knew so many people cared about us.”
Saturday’s efforts, she notes, were made possible by a $6,800 Catalyst Grant from Stanislaus Community Foundation. Judging by the volume of work accomplished, and the smiles on every face, the money was well spent.
Calcagno’s advice to others: “Each of us has something we’re passionate about. I’m a firm believer in following your passion.”
If you have the courage to do that, she says, you never know what good things might come of it.
There couldn’t be a better example than the Transition to Success Program at Rising Sun School.