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Class gives students a taste of environmental careers

Posted: Wednesday, Oct 16th, 2013

Leslie Holtaway, a water quality chemist, leads a tour of the Water Resources lab Tuesday for Pajaro Valley High students in the Green Careers program. (Photo by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE — As 23 Pajaro Valley High School students toured Watsonville’s Water Resources Center Tuesday, they saw the inner workings of the plant, which treats some 7 million gallons per day of sewage from Watsonville, Pajaro and Freedom.

During the tour, one question kept coming up.

“Their biggest question is what happens to the poop,” said Tami Stolzenthaler, environmental education coordinator for the city of Watsonville.

And that is exactly what they learned — through a vast, complex network of giant tanks and filters, the plant purifies waste water to such a high standard that it can be used for agricultural irrigation or sent to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

But the true reason for their visit was what they would learn in a small meeting room at the plant: they can make a successful career working with water.

The students are part of the PVHS Green Careers program, which is run through the Santa Cruz County Office of Education Regional Occupational Program and Watsonville Wetlands Watch.

Through the program, the students study such topics as natural resources, water, energy and agriculture, and take a look at “green” careers available in those fields.

They also take field trips to bolster what they learn, to places such as Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge and the treatment facility.

“It’s a good way for them to consider where they can benefit the environment and maintain a good standard of living,” Stolzenthaler said.

Watsonville Wetlands Watch Environmental Education Specialist Adrienne Frisbee said the students in the class have already studied biology and chemistry, and are ready to see practical ways in which they might put that knowledge to use.

“We teach the students what they need for the green career industry,” she said.

PVHS senior Celeste Espino said her love of nature prompted her to join the green career program.

“I know how important it is to take care of the environment,” she said. “I want to be a part of that.”

Cesar Sanchez, who works for the Water Resources Center as a Water Operator II, is a Watsonville High School graduate who briefly served in the military before realizing it was not the career for him.

He told the students he didn’t sufficiently study that career option before embarking on it.

“My suggestion to you guys is, whatever you want to go into in life, research it,” he told the students.

He came home and got his job at the Water Resources Center seven years ago.

Sanchez described himself as an average student with a penchant for math and who struggled somewhat with word problems. He also found chemistry difficult. Still, he managed to learn the necessary skills to do his job, which includes maintaining water infrastructure and testing water quality.

“Nobody considered me the smartest person in the world,” he said. “But if I can do it, you guys can.”

When questioned by the students, Sanchez said he “honestly loves” his job.

“I’m responsible for 60,000 people who live in Watsonville,” he said. “That’s very important to me.”

Connecting the students with people like Sanchez — a young, Watsonville native with whom many of the students can relate — is one of the main points of the tours, said Watsonville Wetlands Watch Director of Education Programs Noëlle Antolin.

The green careers program, she said, was designed to give students a broad spectrum of career options, whether they indent to go to a 2-year college or a 4-year university.

Espino said she enjoyed the tour, which gave her a firsthand look at the facility and, for now, an idea of a possible career.

“Working on water seems like an option for me,” she said. “This gives me an idea what it’s like.”

The class is run in conjunction with the Santa Cruz County Regional Occupational Program, Watsonville Wetlands Watch and Pajaro Valley Unified School District.

Such partnerships are especially important after California this year changed the way schools are funded, said ROP director Mark Hodges.

The Local Control Funding Formula gives school districts control over how they spend their money and eliminates categorical funding programs.

But it also means that ROP programs, which are funded through the state, will receive less money.

“This is a way for us to combine resources to provide unique learning opportunities for the kids,” Hodges said. “We’re hoping we can create other partnerships like we did with this program. It’s a unique way to provide educational opportunities to students who wouldn’t otherwise have it.”

The Santa Cruz County Regional Occupational Program has been serving the county since 1968, with programs such as a biotechnology program at Harbor High School, a culinary arts class in Santa Cruz, criminal justice at Watsonville Police Department and fire technology at Watsonville Fire Department.

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