Academy students help Treat Farm go organic as part of Big Picture program

A group of students at The Academy is taking part in a pilot program inspired by the Big Picture Learning model, which takes them out of the classroom part of the day to work in internships.

Eventually, the students will all settle into their own individual internships tailored to their career interests, but for now the eight students are working together, helping a local farmer go organic.

Sam Woychowski, who is part of the Big Picture program, explained that Milford’s Treat Farm wanted to create an organic section and contacted the students to get their help.

The group visited the farm and took soil samples in the area that owner Mary Treat had chosen for organic farming. Then they brought the soil to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.

There, a scientist walked the students through the process of testing the soil and determining what it needed to support organic produce, explained student Max Curran.

The students said they are confident they will be able to help Treat create an organic section of the farm, though they said it won’t happen overnight.

“The prep is pretty easy,” said student Kyle Mancini. “But it takes three years for the whole organic process.”

According to, Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor established Big Picture Learning in 1995 with a mission of “encouraging, inciting and effecting change in the U.S. educational system.”

“Dennis and Elliot merged their 30 years of individual experiences as teachers and principals in public high schools and their distinct national reputations for successful educational innovation to co-direct this effort,” the website states.

The model focuses on learning through internships with experts in the field that the students plan to pursue.

“The student completes an authentic project that benefits the student and the mentor at the internship site,” the website states. “The projects are connected to the student’s interests and meet the needs of the mentors, and are the main root to deepening student learning and academic growth.”

Kelly Graham, a math teacher at The Academy, and Annaliese Spaziano, Academy director, attended a conference about Big Picture and thought it was perfect for the Milford school.

The Academy is a non-traditional high school, attracting students who do not usually prosper in the typical setting. At the Academy, students attend classes part of their day and venture out into the community for various projects during the second part of their school day.

Graham and Spaziano took the Big Picture structure and modified it to fit the Academy. Instead of students pursuing internships five days a week, they will intern two days a week and spend the other time in school learning their core subjects.

The Big Picture program at The Academy also incorporates team building exercises in the classroom, similar to exercises that corporations use to promote teamwork among employees.

Graham and Spaziano invited the students they thought would benefit from Big Picture, and the eight students who signed on make up the pilot group. Graham hopes to expand the program in the future.

The students have sampled some internships, working alongside people in local companies as they decide which career suits them most and which internship they would like to call their own.

Luis Heenan, for example, is interested in marine biology. So he did some work at Bobby Js Bait and Tackle on New Haven Avenue, and he helped sort clams at Briarpatch Enterprises, a commercial fishing company also on New Haven Avenue. He also attended an open house at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Milford laboratory on Rogers Avenue, which conducts marine research.

Kyle has spent some time at Traynor Collision on Bridgeport Avenue, and he seemed to really enjoy it. Kyle said he would love to pursue autobody repair within the race car industry.

Sam would love to do an internship at Yankee Stadium, but said he would settle for something sports-related closer to home.

Companies in the area have expressed an interest in working with the students and helping with the internships, Graham said. She is working with Mayor Ben Blake to try to secure a grant to buy a van to transport students to their internships. For now, the students arrange their own transportation.

Spaziano said she’s pleased with the way the program is going.

“Students are authentically engaged when they are applying what they've learned to solve real-world problems,” she said. “I like the Big Picture Learning model because it provides students with the opportunity to extend their learning beyond the walls of the traditional classroom and into the community under the guidance of both a mentor in the profession as well as their teacher.”