Orestimba teacher goes back to his roots to make real-life lessons

Orestimba High School students will get some slice-of-life lessons on agriculture, harvested by teacher Randy Rocha during a stint in the field last week.

The week was an internship at Stewart & Jasper Orchards provided through the nonprofit Stanislaus Partners in Education, one of about 40 such summer placements giving teachers hands-on experience to bring back to the classroom.

Rocha grew up in Newman and can see the fields of Stewart & Jasper from his house. He farms almonds with his dad and, before starting a second career as a teacher, worked in food marketing and distribution. He knew a lot about almonds going in.

But his time in the field, from orchard to processing plant to retail operation, gave him fresh insights into an almond’s journey from blossom to flavor-added snack.

“I had no idea, when those trucks full of almonds left our farm, what they went through to get into that 25-pound box,” Rocha said. “It’s phenomenal, not only the number of steps, but the care that goes out in every box.”

Among the revelations he listed: Every orchard has a slightly different soil and different trees. Every grower has different ways of doing things. Every almond buyer has a different need to fill. Every customer complaint calls for a different response.

“People think farming is pretty simple. But I’ll be taking that process into classes in different ways,” Rocha said.

At each stop, Rocha got what he calls source documents, the everyday memos and charts that businesses use to make a point, convey results or work through an issue. These will become his lesson materials.

“Here are real-life scenarios, the graphs, the numbers and statistics that are used in business meetings. It’s how (businesses) problem solve,” Rocha said. He sees this as especially relevant to Common Core, in which his students will need to strategize how to solve an issue.

A view into the pace and risk of retail shows how problem solving figures as an employable skill. “Every season’s unpredictable. You think you know, but you don’t know,” said Rebecca Genasci, Stewart & Jasper retail manager.

The firm buys extra products to fill gift baskets for the holiday season, then repackages the unsold candied and flavored nuts for Super Bowl or Valentine’s Day sales, noted Jason Jasper, who works the retail side of the family business.

Bringing that immediacy to finding solutions helps teens connect what they learn in class to what they will need for good jobs, Rocha said.

“It has to be relevant to the real world. The only way we, as educators, get that is to get our boots on the ground,” he said. Career day talks are not enough, he added. “We have to change the paradigm of education.”

The diverse workforce at Stewart & Jasper includes master’s degree holders as well as high school dropouts, and each is valued, stressed Jim Jasper, father of Jason Jasper and head of the family-owned company.

“Education is important, but there’s other facets,” he said. “We’re a team, each helping each other, communicating well with each other, all pulling in the same direction.”

When he hires, he said, he’s looking for attitude. “I want someone who’s not just looking for a job, but they want to be a part of the company,” Jim Jasper said.“Kids go through high school and college, but until that first job, they’re pretty clueless about what an employer expects.”

“It’s so important for kids to get that different perspective, to see the business philosophy,” Rocha said. He works fundamentals like workplace etiquette and perseverance into everyday interactions with his students.

“Every day, I shake hands with every kid, give them that eye-to-eye contact and develop those people skills,” he said. His time with Jasper’s operation reinforced his sense that so-called soft skills matter. “I’ve seen the value of making connections, with communicating,” Rocha said.

“Sometimes kids and the educational system have grown to accept mediocrity. You just cannot be that way in the private sector,” Rocha said, noting that special-education students often expect to fail. In his class, he said, “I have expectations of them succeeding. Everybody has their gifts.”

Orestimba High also will benefit from connections Rocha has made, with donations of materials and expertise for a 4.5-acre orchard the school is developing with a horticulture class. Guest speakers will tackle topics like irrigation and maximizing tree production. When fully implemented, student teams will research the best varieties to grow, farming practices, marketing and sales in a student store, he said.

“So many high school students simply do not know what they want or can do as a future job or career. I believe it is because they have never been introduced to what is out there,” Rocha wrote on his internship application. “I know this program will do just that,” he concluded.