Cunningham Academy Students Find Flavor and Learning in Growing Shiitake Mushrooms

 In Camelot Blog

Two years ago, Cunningham Academy installed a new greenhouse to give students the opportunity to learn gardening and horticultural skills. Students learned to cultivate plants including by growing pansies for Mother’s Day each year. This past year COVID-19 presented a challenge: due to the need to ensure student safety, students could not be present every day over the four-month growth cycle necessary to grow pansies.

Since students missed working in the greenhouse, school administrators came together with a new plan that entailed growing shiitake mushrooms for a healthy nutritional option, which could be maintained for a grow in the spring. By that time, enough students could participate in the program to ensure the growth was successful. Mushroom logs were prepared in January and left in the cool greenhouse environment until optimal maintenance could resume in the spring.

“Our students learn teamwork and other life skills growing flowers and plants from seed to harvest,” said Matt Kass, Executive Director of Cunningham Academy. “With COVID, they have missed being out in the greenhouse working together. But our staff came together to create another way to keep students engaged and to still spend time in the greenhouse.”

Cunningham Academy partnered with D.K. Mushrooms of America in Pilesgrove, NJ. Mushrooms of America donated 100 inoculated shiitake mushroom logs for students to grow at the school’s greenhouse.

According to Kass, the mushroom logs provide a “fascinating gardening adventure” whereby the mushrooms are inoculated over a 7-to-14-day process. Each log had holes drilled in them where mushroom spores were filled in for mushrooms to spawn. Students then had to constantly maintain the temperature and provide enough moisture and airflow to prevent dehydration. Supplying the airflow and keeping the right humidity was challenging. All told, students and staff successfully grew 40 pounds worth of mushrooms in two “flushes,” another word for harvest. Each student took a small number of mushrooms home to enjoy with their family.

In addition to growing the mushrooms, students learned about the history and nutritional value of shiitake mushrooms. The mushroom has been cultivated in China for thousands of years. It has a woodsy flavor that is incorporated in soups and white pizza among other dishes. Research shows that eating them enhances ones’ immune system by providing Vitamin D.

Students were motivated by many aspects of the project. Ninth-grader Trey Roses wrote a paper on the market for mushrooms and the reasons that the mushroom business can be quite lucrative.

“Mushrooms have a wide variety of medicinal and culinary uses,” Roses stated in his research paper. “More than 100 medicinal functions are produced by mushrooms, including antioxidant, anticancer, antidiabetic, antiallergic, immunomodulating, cardiovascular protector, anticholesterolemic, antiviral, antibacterial, antiparasitic, antifungal, detoxification, and hepatoprotective effects.”

Teacher Anthony Tort was thrilled that his students loved the project. “It was a great spark in the classroom. Students like Trey had an immediate interest in mushrooms and greenhouses. We explored different aspects of mushrooms, how they grow, and how they can be an effective business.”

Cunningham Academy, a Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI) school, is a transitional social and emotional learning program for students to temporarily learn before returning to their original school with improved behavior, attendance and academic performance. The school takes a whole-child approach incorporating healthy living, behavioral learning methods and other life skills training for students to expand their horizons in multiple ways.

SESI is a premier provider of education services for K-12 students who face challenges that prevent them from being successful in a traditional classroom. SESI partners with school districts to run in-district classrooms and stand-alone schools that meet the academic, behavioral, social, and emotional needs of special and alternative education students.

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