PHARR — A recent $50,000 grant awarded to Buell Central High School is slated to help students extend their in-house sustainability efforts to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo community.

The grant, awarded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, will fund the Buell Green Conservation and Restoration Program which will spawn widespread efforts throughout the PSJA school district area, said Buell Principal Mario Bracamontes.

Bracamontes leads the alternative school where middle and high school students from across the district are sent due to behavioral issues or school-code violations. In this school the classroom sizes are small, to provide at-risk students with more one-on-one time. Their coursework is full of hands-on opportunities, which tend to revolve around sustainability.

“We found a different way of approaching these kids,” Bracamontes said. “Instead of identifying, analyzing and then taking a test, we are identifying, analyzing and we are building a product. … We have vertical gardening, organic gardening, we have our organic chickens — we are comparing free-roaming chicken (eggs) to caged chicken eggs.”

Students have been planting their own gardens, both inside and outside the classroom, using hydroponic and aquaponics growing systems while learning lessons using this and other sustainability efforts such as solar power and organic composting. But the grant will allow them to partner with the city to plant about 10,000 native plants and trees from seed and also engage younger students in the efforts, Bracamontes said.

“We are about to build three 34-by-4-foot grow-beds,” Bracamontes said about the 10,000-plant and tree initiative. “We are going to be growing and germinating, growing and planting them.”

The plan is to partner with the school district’s elementary schools in the lower-economic areas of the district to create what they will call Green Commandos, which will lead the conservation and restoration efforts. About $12,000 from the grant will be set aside to involve these students, who he said tend to be too poor to join Boy Scout clubs and groups of that kind.

“These little kids are the ones that are going to be building the parks and doing all these things for the cities,” he said. “We are going to go out there and identify non-native species and native species. We are going to be working with birds also. We are going big.”

The grant works on a refund basis, he said, so they are currently developing the plan to involve about 400 students during the two-year program. A total of 50 acres of land in several area parks will be used for the initiative.

Project partners with the district include the Pharr Athletic League and Hidalgo County Precinct 2 which will allow the students to plant trees in parks, schools and throughout the community.

“The grant was nationwide and our kids were already doing all that stuff,” he said. “So we started applying for it and the people from the grant at (the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation) said ‘this is amazing.’”