March 3rd, 2022
By Shereen Hughes
Let’s start with a riddle –
Two horticulturists walk into a bar…
No, not that kind. I’m talking about the riddle that has stumped the green industry for years – how to attract the next generation of workers to green industry jobs. Recruiting strategies used in the past no longer seem to be working, and college-level horticulture programs across Virginia and the Bay Region are dwindling or being absorbed by other departments. For CCLC, there has been a second part to the riddle – how to grow the native plant industry to meet the demand that we create for native plants with our 8 Essential Elements of Conservation Landscaping?
In order to develop a trained pool of talent and spark interest in this career field, the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional program (CBLP) decided on a different approach and developed a blueprint for certifying high school students through the CBLP-Associate (CBLP-A) program. CBLP has trained more than 1200 professionals throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed over the last six years, with a focus on conservation landscaping techniques, stormwater best management practices, watershed health, and low impact design. That experience, we thought, could be leveraged to help prepare students to enter the workforce.
Integrating CBLP-A into high school horticulture and landscape courses in Virginia is a story of partnership and collaboration, a win-win for all involved. The program was originally developed and piloted in Maryland through a Howard EcoWorks Chesapeake Bay Trust grant in 2018. Howard EcoWorks asked CCLC and David Hirschman of Hirschman Water and Environment, to modify and simplify the CBLP Level 1 program and train their Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth (READY) team the “CBLP way.” The goal from the start was to provide these young people with certificates and provide inspiration and pathways to entry level jobs, Level 1 certification, green infrastructure-related degrees, and future careers. After the 2018 CBLP-A pilot, we added a second partner in Maryland, the Prince George’s County Parks and Recreation Department of the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. They integrated CBLP-A into their summer youth enrichment program for county high school students at Bladensburg Waterfront Park on the Anacostia River.
In 2018, Wetlands Watch, a Virginia-based environmental non-profit which serves as a CCLC Board Member, a CBLP Consortium partner and the Virginia CBLP Coordinator, received grant funding as a winner of the RISE Coastal Communities Resilience Challenge (RISE)*. This grant provided funding for us to pilot CBLP-A partnerships in Virginia. When we applied for the grant, the Elizabeth River Project (ERP) agreed to be one such partner and several high schools voiced interest in integrating the CBLP-A program in their horticulture/landscape and environmental science curricula.
As we explored a partnership with a local high school program, we encountered some resistance from school administrators not wanting to be educational guinea pigs. Enter Carol Heiser…remember when we said this is a story of collaboration and partners? Carol Heiser, a long time CCLC Board and CBLP Steering Committee and Consortium member representing the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Habitat Partners program, connected me with the right person in the Virginia Department of Education Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, and, in 2020, CBLP-Associate was approved as an industry credential that can be earned through Horticulture Sciences, Landscaping or Turf Management courses in Virginia.
But wait, there is more to this story of how we integrated CBLP-A into a high school horticulture curriculum…
In 2020, as COVID hit, schools shut down, and the ERP only had two high school interns in the summer of 2020. After starts and stops and modifications, we finally piloted CBLP-A in the summer of 2020, aligned with the ERP Conservation Youth internship program at Paradise Creek Nature Park. Two ERP staff who are CBLP Level 2 certified pros, Yolima Carr and Larry Lapell, are now CBLP-A trainers.
There were several rewarding moments working with the ERP interns. When we met the moms of Justin and Thomas, the first two CBLP-As, we saw their pride in their son’s achievements as well as enthusiasm for Paradise Creek Nature Park. Justin is going to become the family tour guide, introducing his cousins and friends to the park, a beautiful wetlands and natural restoration area in an industrialized area of Portsmouth, VA.
Will any of these new CBLP-As go on to get green jobs or degrees in sustainable landscapes, environmental science, stormwater engineering, or other related disciplines? Only time will tell, but I will never forget when one of the young women in our 2nd ERP CBLP-A cohort squealed in delight when she saw her first frog (ever) and enthusiastically claimed that the stormwater best management practice (BMP) activities were her favorite part of the training and learning experience. When our training activities first started, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to coax this set of interns out of their ‘cool’ façade into an enthusiastic response of any kind, so I’ll take that as a win and another part of an answer to the riddle. This young woman, who wants to be a veterinarian, also learned that many medicines originate from plants, so we may yet interest her in the science of horticulture. And working with these interns and this age group began to prepare us to adapt the CBLP-A delivery and experiences to engage a high school class.
So, let’s get back to the story of collaboration and partnering… At the ERP celebration for our first two Virginia CBLP-As, I met Chelta Wray, the Coordinator for NextGen Pathways Program for the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, the program that recruits and funds youth for the ERP internship program. When I introduced Chelta to the CBLP-A program as a means for developing pathways for high school youth to entry-level jobs, she offered to connect me with the Portsmouth school system’s CTE program director and coordinator. After multiple meetings and discussions, we (Wetlands Watch, CCLC, and Portsmouth Public Schools) entered into an agreement with the Churchland High School (CHS) Horticulture Sciences program to bring them on board.
At that time, it looked like COVID was on the decline, students would return to the classroom, and we could take a full-day field trip to Old Dominion University (ODU) to run our student training day – an intense day of presentations and hands-on activities. Easy, peasy, right? Nope. To fit the CBLP-A content into the class schedule, address field trip and school visitor restrictions, student absences, and COVID safety precautions, David Hirschman (our trainer extraordinaire) and I needed to quickly revamp the program delivery model. Thank goodness we were able to redistribute and dedicate extra RISE funds to cover us. We converted several CBLP-A modules into short pre-recorded video presentations, which were then followed by hands-on exercises (typically outdoors ). We aligned CBLP-A with the Horticulture Sciences curriculum tasks and competencies including: research industry career opportunities, plant taxonomy, plant anatomy and physiology, characteristics of soil, identify landscape plants, design landscapes, identify landscape maintenance tasks. We created a new CBLP-A syllabus and spread out instruction over a three-week period.
Classroom learning was combined with hands-on activities and a field trip to the Old Dominion University (ODU) campus in Norfolk, VA, giving the high schoolers a chance to explore examples of how the knowledge and skills they were gaining translate into real world solutions, connecting them with facilities management staff and future employment opportunities, and exposing them to the college environment, in general. Our partners at ODU Facilities Management dedicated classroom and staff time of certified CBLPs like Rachel Griffith to assist.
Throughout the course, students interacted with green industry professionals and learned about job opportunities available to them after graduation, as well as pathways to higher education and professional level training.
We saw student’s enthusiasm and interest in CBLP-A, entry-level green jobs, and green careers grow during and after the hands-on activities. In general, once engaged, most students were more likely to do well and care about earning the credential.
In December 2021, the first CBLP-A class concluded with 17 certified students, ages 14 to 18. CBLP-A is slated to be part of the horticulture curriculum at Gloucester High School, in Gloucester, VA, this spring, and will continue to be offered at CHS. Plans are underway to keep certified students engaged with the career field through education, as well as connecting them to volunteer and mentoring opportunities. ODU is willing to offer internships and entry level jobs to these new CBLP-As when they graduate.
While working with the class, I noticed how students were nurturing the plants they propagated in class. One student was collecting seed, with permission, from some of the plants in the rain garden and conservation landscape at ODU. There is a tradition among plant enthusiasts to share cuttings and seeds, so before the certificate ceremony at CHS, I collected some seeds from native pollinator plants in my yard, labeled them with the scientific and common names, and passed them on to what I hope will be a new generation of environmentally sensitive horticulturalists growing and propagating locally native plants. I look forward to staying engaged with this first group, to see if we can connect them to internships, jobs and college scholarships and programs.
Every good riddle has a clever solution.
We believe that training students through the CBLP-A program is a first step to the answer. But we also need conservation landscape and green infrastructure pros to link the classroom training to the field by providing mentoring and employment options for students who complete the program. If you’re a professional and interested in working with these students, we’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or reach out to us directly.
*Wetlands Watch would like to gratefully acknowledge that funding for this project was provided through a Commonwealth of Virginia’s Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant National Disaster Resilience (HUD CDBG-NDR) fund awarded to Wetlands Watch by Coastal Community Resilience, Inc., DBA RISE.
Shereen Hughes is the Virginia Coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional (CBLP) program and Assistant Director for Wetlands Watch, a founding consortium partner of the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional (CBLP) program. Through her dual roles, Shereen collaborates with organizations and individuals across the Chesapeake Bay Region and throughout Virginia to engage, train, align and grow a network of green infrastructure professionals focused on climate resilience and watershed health through sustainable landscapes and natural and nature-based stormwater and shoreline management practices. She also is mentoring a new generation of resilience professionals through the Wetlands Watch Collaboratory and serves on the CCLC Board. Prior experience includes consulting hydrogeologist, landscape designer, and planning commissioner.