Opportunity Garden

It was 8:30 AM on Thursday at the Columbus High School (CHS) campus when 38 students from the Warren High School Construction Technology CTE program scrambled off the school bus and got right to work.

With minimal direction from their teacher, Kent Kiess, the boys and girls, each with a loaded tool belt and a blue t-shirt began to assemble tables, saws, stacks of lumber and a canopy to create a variety of work stations.

It was a beautiful day and there was a lot to be accomplished. That day was monumental in the sense that different groups of students and adults within the Downey Unified School District came together to create a garden outside of the Opportunity Center (OC) classrooms. These two classrooms provide instruction to students who require intensive support and a smaller classroom setting than what can be offered at either Downey or Warren High Schools. Several groups of students from the OC, Warren High School, the Learning Center (a credit recovery program located on the CHS campus for students with special needs) and one student from a Special Education Adult Transition program (on the Downey Adult School campus) worked collaboratively on a living, sustainable project which will benefit the students, and ultimately the school community.


The students from Warren High School are all members of the Career Technical Education Construction Technology Program in which they receive training from Kent Kiess, a master builder and former special education teacher. Each student receives core instruction in building construction basics, and then has the opportunity to select a specialty area, such as dry wall, painting, plumbing, rough framing, etc. Phil Davis, Director of Support Programs, states, “This is a wonderful example of watching a plan come together. Our CTE students work very hard in the classroom and then go out into the field and use real world opportunities to reinforce what is taught in their core classes. Plus it is always neat to see the kids forge relationships and learn how to work together as a team. I am really proud of the kids and excited about Mrs. Valadez’ vision.”

This is a dream come true. Integrating students to give them the opportunity to work together and form friendships is what needs to occur every day
“This is a dream come true”, added Ruth Valadez, Director of Special Education. “Integrating students to give them the opportunity to work together and form friendships is what needs to occur every day. We started out with our small pocket garden originally in the OC, (funded by a gift from the Downey Credit Union) and our students were motivated by this project and were interested in doing more. So, we teamed up with Phil Davis who helped us with our vision and assisted us in taking this to the next level. I am incredibly proud of what’s going on here today.” Ms. Valadez worked along side Mr. Kiess and Mr. Davis, the students, their teachers (Darren Peterson, Smith Prasirtpun and Charles Lozano) and their instructional aides, as well as with Dr. Brian Murray, Special Education Program Administrator.

Throughout the morning, students and staff worked together to build and lay raised garden boxes, fill them with soil, and then plant hundreds of lettuce and onion plants. The plants were generously donated by Mr. Greg Pittinger, a botany teacher from Downey High School. Mr. Pittinger committed to provide starter plants for this project, for as long as it is in existence. This is truly a cross-district project with the support of so many. There were a variety of visitors throughout the day who came to pitch in and otherwise show their support. They included Jerilyn King-Brown, Assistant Superintendent, Kathleen Succa, Principal of CHS, Vicki Rusick, Vice Principal of CHS, Dr. Robert Jagielski, Director of Student Services, Xochitl Ortiz, School Psychologist, Darrell Jackson, 10-20 Club Consultant and Stan Hanstad, former Assistant Superintendent of Personnel.

Also in attendance was Mr. Coy Thomas, father of Coy Nathan Thomas, an Opportunity Center student, who was an innocent bystander tragically killed by gang violence in Los Angeles last December. Coy Nathan was a student who was devoted to tending the garden at his school. Mr. Thomas expressed his amazement and appreciation of the day, and will come back with his family to the garden in a couple of months when it will be dedicated as “Coy’s Garden”.

At the end of the day there stood ten raised garden boxes where there was once a slab of asphalt. A very proud Javier Vasquez, WHS student viewed the finished project that was a replica of the plan that he had created. The crew was tired but everyone seemed deeply satisfied with the events of the day. It was a job well done by all participants, and even more importantly, it was a project that will take on a life of its own; the creation of something much larger than what could have been accomplished by any one of these groups individually.

Be sure to visit our Facebook for the lastest news and information click here