Teaching turf

By |  July 16, 2020 0 Comments
Students in South Fork High School's turfgrass program gain the hands-on experience of working on a golf course renovation. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Schepman)

Students in South Fork High School’s Academy of Landscape and Turfgrass Management gain the hands-on experience of working on a golf course renovation. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Schepman)

It’s not every high school that can boast a three-hole golf course, complete with multiple tee boxes, a water feature and a practice facility, and it’s certainly not every day that high school students have the opportunity to partake in a complete course renovation — unless, that high school student is enrolled in South Fork High School’s Academy of Landscape and Turfgrass Management.

The program began at the Stuart, Fla., high school in 1989 to fill a need for an additional vocational program. It was originally headed by Keith Krueger, who has since retired as the program’s horticulture instructor but who still sits on the program’s advisory board.

“This program became a feeder for employees, whether it was line staff or management-level employees in the golf business,” says The Jupiter Island Club Director of Buildings and Grounds Rob Kloska, who has been involved in the program since the mid-1990s, helping secure funding from the local superintendents’ association chapter.

He adds, “In this business, it doesn’t matter what point of the business you’re in, finding good quality help is always a challenge. Krueger was already having high school kids out there in the workforce. All along, our club benefitted greatly from this program as others have too because the list of alumni is significant.”

Rising from the ashes

While the turfgrass program successfully chugged along through the ’90s and early 2000s, it fell on hard times around the time of the Great Recession in 2008.

“The economic downturn in 2008 hurt because school districts all over the country were losing tax dollars so they didn’t have money to put into the program, and the golf business contracted tremendously,” Kloska says. “If you combine all those things, the golf course didn’t get the care and dollars that it needed.”

Fast-forward to 2016, Kloska approached a group of industry peers about the possibility of revamping the short course at South Fork High School.

“I said, let’s take a look and see if we can get this thing back on its feet because the golf course industry had risen from the ashes,” Kloska says. “We needed help and good quality people back in the business.”

Wendy Schepman, a graduate of South Fork’s program who currently oversees the landscape and sports turf management program, couldn’t have been more on board.

“This renovation project is a really big victory because we were in dire shape. We really needed some help,” she says. “Coming off the economy being so bad, we lost the ability to get things that we needed, and there were hurricanes that did some damage and other environmental factors that had gotten the course pretty out of control.”

It doesn’t hurt that in 2019, Schepman won the first-place Harbor Freight Tools for Schools 2019 Prize for Teaching Excellence award, worth a total of $100,000 to help with the renovation.

Getting down to business

In no time, a team formed to restore the course to its former glory: A surveyor surveyed the entire property at no charge; architect Jan Bel Jan created a plan without charging the school; irrigation consultant Mike Pignato of The Pignato Group put together a plan; Gary Sullivan of Sullivan and Electric looked at the pump station; and Wadsworth Construction and Wadsworth Foundation committed to revamping the first hole for little to nothing.

Additionally, companies including Toro, John Deere, King Ranch Turf and Rain Bird stepped up to donate additional supplies and equipment.

The initial plan involved having students renovate one hole per year and the practice facility at the end of the project, wrapping up in 2023. However, due to the coronavirus, much of the renovation work has been put on hold.

The holes hover at about 150 yards each, with one hole featuring a pond. Each hole will incorporate several different tee boxes.

“The multiyear plan allows the maximum number of students to participate,” Kloska says.

A closer look

With about 240 students in grades nine through 12 enrolled in the program and two teachers, there are six classes — three beginner level and three advanced. As the classes become more advanced, students spend more time outside with hands-on instruction.

“When you teach about a renovation, there’s math involved, there’s surveying involved, planning, there’s a lot of classes and disciplines in school that can be involved. It’s going to offer the opportunity to teach these students things you can talk about in a classroom and walk out the door and explain them immediately, instead of just using a book or overhead projector or computer screen. This is going to be something that’s happening in real life.”

Through the program, students have the chance to take the Florida Nursery Growers’ Landscape Association Certificate and can earn up to 18 college credits at the local college that offers a turfgrass program.

“Their freshman year, they usually only take one class and then the rest of the years, if they have their requirements met, they can take two or three classes at a time,” Schepman says. “I have a lot of seniors for three classes a day or half of the day. We’re like a family by the end of the four years. We spend a lot of time together.”

Students start out in the nursery picking leaves, work their way up to mowing and using the equipment, learn integrative pest management and best management practices and how to sod.

So, in addition to being presented with the opportunity to renovate the golf course, students have a heavy hand in maintaining the golf course as well.

“I put them in groups and they get trained on what to do, then they go do it,” she says. “The upper-level students act like foreman or crew leaders and they’ll go out, make sure things are getting done and help students if the less experienced ones need help. So, it’s a team effort to maintain this golf course. They’re really good at supporting each other and teaching each other, and I think the older students take a lot of pride in showing the younger students how to do something.”

When it’s all said and done, Kloska says he hopes the hands-on instruction will also teach students the value of hard work and that students come away with an understanding of how a renovation takes shape, including how a green is built, how irrigation is installed, how a grow-in is done with all of the topdressing and rolling and what it takes for a surface to be playable, so that when they go to find a job, they can list it on their resume.

“The young people today are more driven by instant results, and a renovation shows results daily, so they’ll find themselves wanting to go back to see the golf course the next day as the renovation progresses. It will really pique their interest.”

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About the Author: Sarah Webb

Sarah Webb is Golfdom's former managing editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at Golfdom, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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