Southern High School Makes a Difference with BETC

Apr. 27, 2013 @ 10:03 AM

For years, conversations regarding teaching and learning have thrown around sound bites and buzz words like “teachable moments,” “real world applications,” and “hands on learning.” 

But an educational program that gives these phrases real meaning is now being developed at Durham’s Southern High School, and participating students’ growth is already being realized. 

Exceptional-children teachers Amy Jenkins and Lennie Curington and principal Kenneth Barnes have joined with Durham County watershed conservationist Mike Dupree and Soil and Water Conservation District director Eddie Culberson to develop the Bionomic Education Training Center (BETC, pronounced "Betsy"), to provide funding, work experience and practical math and science lessons for Southern students. The project, which receives funding from the National Institute for Agriculture (NIFA), will be expanded over the next two years.

BETC has two parts: the school-based agribusiness and the experiment station. In the agribusiness, students grow and sell native plants for rain gardens, bio-retention ponds and riparian buffers that reduce polluted runoff into Durham waterways. The agribusiness was designed for special-needs students identified for the Occupational Course of Study (OCS). Many OCS students may not successfully complete the state requirements for a high-school diploma, but BETC will provide them with the tools to be productive (and environmentally conscious) citizens.

“Three years ago, we went knocking on doors trying to find a recycling program to implement in our school,” said Jenkins.  “The students need work hours, and we thought if we could get some recycling up and going, the students could do something meaningful.  We connected with Durham Soil and Water. Little did we know that we were opening the door to something amazing. The first year, the OCS department planted over 200 plants and trees. That was also the first year we installed rain gardens in the community.  The students were very proud of themselves, and a few went on to get further training in landscaping post-graduation.”

The students and staff have worked very hard this year growing native North Carolina plants for rain gardens and various herbs.  They built small cold frames and installed an automated irrigation system.  They’ve been learning how to engineer a rain garden, how rain gardens remove urban contaminates and are, thus, very important for sustaining our community and environment.  The biggest and most profound change, however, has been the change in the students.  They see that they are doing something that really matters. What they are learning will influence the rest of their lives.  

Mike Dupree is watershed conservationist/agricultural development coordinator for the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District. The Durham Soil and Water Conservation District is part of Durham County Government. To learn more please visit

Southern BETC students are holding a plant sale during the week of May 6th.  Purchases can be made through appointments.  Please email or  or call 919-560-3968 for more information.   This fund-raiser is critical to the long-term success of the program and teaches students entrepreneurial life skills.