Michael Cirone racked his brain, trying to find a way to instill a love of science in his urban students at the Emerson Middle School in Union City. Hewanted a “wow factor.”

Then at home, the answer hit him. His fiancée, JoAnna Castiello, grew parsley in water. She created a small ecosystem, growing parsley without dirt, without a yard, and without bugs, dogs, rabbits or all the other pests that prowl the great outdoors.

Cirone, principal at Emerson, knew many of his students didn’t have a yard, or even a patch of dirt to plant a garden. No dirt? No yard? No problem! The solution was “hydroponics.” In a hydroponic system, plants grow in a steadily flowing stream of water, laden with nutrients and a very low dose of electronic current. So now, after the inspiration, came the tricky part. How, exactly, do you get such a program started?

“I had a room that had access to electricity and water,” Cirone said, “but it was full of old lunch tables. And you know how public schools work: Even throwing things out is an issue.” It took a year to clean out the room.

He found a company online, New York Sun Works, to help with the technicalities. All told, the project cost about $10,000 to get off the ground and less than $5,000 a year to keep going. Union City superintendent Silvia Abbato granted permissions and solved problems. District grants administrator Charles Webster found funding to add a community garden and student sanctuary, Cirone said.

Now, it was time to get the kids involved.

“In the beginning, they were extremely excited,” said science teacher Laura Kushnir, who has taught at Emerson since it opened 10 years ago. “They were also overwhelmed with all this information that we gave them.”

Slowly, they sorted it out. To grow a hydroponics garden, seeds are dropped into a pocket in a one-by-one-inch cube of “rock wool,” which is a mixture of crushed clay and rocks.

Once the roots begin to grow, the plants get all they need from the water, nutrients and lights. Sixty students monitor the plants, mostly before or after school.

A second science teacher, Hilda Ventura, speaks Spanish to students who are more comfortable learning in their native language.

The garden has given birth to a host of benefits and learning experiences, Principal Cirone explained.

“One thing we learned about the hard way is contamination. We have the community garden outside, and the hydroponics lab inside, and we learned that if kids work outside in the garden, and then they come inside, they can contaminate the hydro stuff,” Cirone said. “It’s very sensitive.”

In the months ahead, Kushnir said the students would be learning how to use a 3D printer to manufacture the pipes they need to flow the water that feeds the plants.

The success of the project can be measured not only by the enthusiasm of the students, Cirone said, but by the 15,000 pounds of produce they’ve grown. Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack, through his civic association, donates the tomatoes, peppers and other produce to the local food pantry.

In September, the Emerson Middle School program, which began in 2015, was honored with NJSBA’s School Leader award, which showcases innovative programs at New Jersey schools.

“We had science labs, we do dissection, a little bit of the standard middle school type of lab thing,” Cirone said, “but we didn’t have an innovative lab where you walk in and get a ‘wow’ factor.

“Now,” he said, “kids walk in and immediately have a reaction.”


Alan Guenther is the assistant editor at the New Jersey School Boards Association. He can be reached at .