Learning and Growing in Abraxas Garden

In 2015, Abraxas Continuation High School in Poway, CA, began a school garden by transforming a rarely used tennis court into a thriving outdoor classroom. Teacher Bob Lutticken and several colleagues worked with students to build 40 raised beds (covering half of the tennis court) and plant an orchard with 25 fruit trees just outside the court fence. The following year, Bob guided students in the Abraxas construction class in building a 12,000-gallon aquaponic growing system over the other half of the tennis court, and then stocked it with around 300 tilapia. Today, the system allows the garden to produce hundreds of pounds of produce a year, most of which gets donated to local families in need.  

The potential of a space this large and well-appointed is enormous, and thanks to the passion, dedication, and commitment of Abraxas teachers and students, four popular educational programs have blossomed within the space. Today Abraxas Garden hosts around 150 students each quarter for the school's Agriculture, Aquaponics, Culinary, and Transitions programs — more than half the student body population. Bob teaches Biology, Agriculture, and Aquaponics at the school and oversees Abraxas Garden as a whole. “In our school garden, I teach my students the value of eating a diet full of homegrown, organic fruits and vegetables. Teaching kids how to grow food creates a sense of ownership in their own health, builds an understanding of community responsibility by providing food for the needy, and educates them about environmental sustainability,” Bob says.

An aquaponics lab and plant starts on a former tennis court

Abraxas serves teenage students from San Diego County in need of an educational environment that is more intimate and flexible than what is typically found at comprehensive high schools. Many students transfer to Abraxas after being labeled as at risk of not graduating. The school’s personalized project-based education supports alternative learning styles and offers career explorations to help kids focus on their future dreams and grow confident in their skills while still achieving academically.

Bob is proud to share that for many kids Abraxas Garden has become a place of not only learning but also personal growth and joy. “Since we started the garden program seven years ago, student attendance has increased for all who have taken the class. These kids come here with heavy personal issues, and they all love the escape of working in the garden. The health office often sends students to the garden who need a change of scenery or relief from anxiety. Student confidence soars when they can lead tours for anyone who enters our garden and explain the seed-to-table process of both the aquaponics and traditional farming aspect of the project.”

Many of Bob’s students (and former students) are considering careers in horticulture because of their time spent in Abraxas Garden. “We currently have two students working at Walter Anderson’s nursery in Poway as yard crew members,” Bob says. “They are both very interested in agriculture. One wants to pursue sustainability within aquaponics systems and sell fresh produce at farmer's markets. Another wants to become a tomato farmer and develop a following for his heirloom tomatoes. The third is actually a former student who is an administrator who deals strictly with growers.”

In addition to the Agriculture and Aquaponics programs, the Abraxas Transitions program is a life skills program for 18- to 22-year-old young adults with disabilities. “They use the garden as a work site to develop relevant skills. “They keep the weeds cleared out of our native garden and learn to plant succulents, keeping our curb appeal beautiful,” says Bob. “They plant seeds, harvest lettuce, transplant tomatoes, and keep the fruit orchard blooming. They sweep the garden, water the starter plants, and spread straw on the ground to soak up any spilled water. They also started a business making organic dog treats in the kitchen as well as a composting program. The spirit and joy reflected in their accomplishments are contagious. Our students' hearts and energy are immeasurable.”

Two people in a lush garden looking back at the camera

Abraxas Students tend the public succulent garden planted just outside the garden.

As the success of the Agriculture and Aquaponics program kept growing, so did the amount of produce Abraxas Garden was harvesting. Much of the produce was being sent home with Abraxas students, but Bob realized that there was an abundance to share and started partnerships with two local organizations. “We belong to a group called Backyard Produce, which consists of local farms that grow produce to support food needs in our area,” Bob says. “Friends and Family Community Connection is a local organization that collects our garden's harvest every Thursday and distributes the food to families and shelters that need fresh food. In addition to our community donation program, students bring food home to their families or have their families visit the garden to collect veggies from our latest harvest. We have just eclipsed the 15,000-pound produce donation mark, which is a testament to how much effort our students give towards growing food.”

Colorful vegetables on a table, with a striped fence in the background

With all this food being grown and shared, in 2021 Bob partnered with another Abraxas educator to start a culinary program aimed and teaching cooking skills to students and teaching them how to make delicious and nutritious dishes with garden-grown foods. Today teacher Courtney Merritt teaches English, Culinary 1 and Culinary 2 in the Abraxas Garden outdoor kitchen. “We decided that a culinary arts class would provide the students with an opportunity to gain interpersonal skills in a creative and soothing space,” Courtney says. “In 2021 a local family with a similar vision financed an outdoor Abraxas Garden kitchen. It’s a true farm-to-table program in which the kids use the produce from the garden to cook quick and healthy meals that they can make at home for themselves and their families. This is only the second year that my course has been offered and there is already a waiting list to enroll!”

Two people with blue aprons, smiling at the camera. One is giving the thumbs up.

Bob Lutticken and Courtney Merritt in the Abraxas Garden Kitchen.

‘I’m now over halfway through my second year of teaching culinary arts and I absolutely love it,” Courtney says. In Culinary 1, we start with knife skills using whatever seasonal vegetables are in the garden. In the fall, for example, there is an abundance of eggplants, yellow squash, zucchini, tomatoes, basil, and a variety of herbs. So, we make a homemade tomato sauce for ratatouille. Throughout the process, they learn to chop, dice, mince, and slice. They learn which pots and pans to use for different sauces and dishes and what cooking methods were needed for each. In Culinary 2, they use the knowledge gained in the first class to be more creative with their cooking and maintain consistency each time they make it so as to distribute it at fundraisers. For instance, they make several types of salsas with veggies from the garden, lemon pepper garlic salt with lemons from the orchard, and pesto from the herb garden. Each batch has to be exactly the same if they want potential donors to come back for more. The best part about my cooking classes is that the kids are so proud of themselves. Many kids have never cooked in their lives nor experienced food from different cultures. When they watch people exclaim about the meals they prepared themselves, it makes them want to cook even more. It’s exciting to try new recipes with plants that they watched grow from seed to harvest. Cooking isn’t only about feeding yourself. It’s meant to bring friends and family together at the table. The kids understand the importance of nourishing their bodies and their relationships.”

A person chopping vegetables in an outdoor cooking classroom. Students at tables are watching.

One culinary arts student shared their thoughts on the experience, “Because of my culinary class, I have learned how eating the right foods affects my health and the choices I make when I eat. I feel better when I eat vegetables instead of junk food. When I make my own food from scratch, I have more energy and I’m happier. Because I’m in this class, my dad lets me cook dinner for the family four days a week now. Culinary arts is a class I really enjoy and is something I would like to pursue in the future.”

Since its inception, Abraxas Garden has been open to all the school’s educators and now operates as a hub for innovative learning. "We encourage all teachers and staff to contribute their individual expertise to the garden,” Bob says. “The culinary arts class learns to use the produce grown in the garden to cook nutritious, organic meals for themselves and to sell at school-wide fundraisers. Our leadership class also uses the produce to cook and prepare meals for seniors at assisted living homes in the area. Our construction class designed and built all the projects in the garden, including the pond and garden growing beds as well as our off-grid solar projects that have won great recognition within our district and community. Our art teacher has developed a garden art unit where students can use the garden as an art gallery to showcase their talent. Our intro to business class helps with seasonal fundraisers by planning the marketing, budgets, and profit estimations.” The Abraxas Spanish classes have also created garden signs in Spanish and student-led video tutorials on how to prepare two traditional Mexican salsas, along with art to decorate the garden fences.

Adults and students standing proudly behind a table full of food

"We have won many accolades over the years in the garden,” Bob says, “however it is the day-to-day learning by the students that keeps me excited about where this program is headed.” “Abraxas is a magical place for all who ‘live’ here,” Courtney says. “It’s as if we belong to a big family instead of a small school. Yes, we learn. Yes, we have to follow rules. But we also have fun and grow together.”