New York State School Boards Association

Tech Valley High School’s Leah Penniman

Teacher, farmer, aerialist … and Fulbright scholar

by Alan Wechsler

On Board Online • August 11 2014

By Alan Wechsler
Special Correspondent

At age 34, biology and chemistry teacher Leah Penniman has accomplished more than most educators could hope to do in a lifetime.

She founded an independent high school. Met the president. Took students on a Peace Corps-style trip to improve life in a Haitian village.

She and her husband, organic farmer Jonah Vitale-Wolff, own a farm where they train interns in pesticide-free agriculture and raise fruits and vegetables for dozens of inner-city residents. For fun and exercise, Penniman performs aerial silk dances (which involves gymnastics while suspended high above the ground on a silk fabric).

All this while teaching full-time at Tech Valley High School and raising two children.

Her 12-year career has had many highs, including meeting President Obama during his visit to the Capital Region in 2009. She almost missed a last-minute invitation to the event because she was teaching students how to test soil at a rural location, and her cellphone was dead. After word reached her through the bus company, she realized her muddy boots were not appropriate attire. She borrowed sneakers from a student.

To her impressive five-page C.V., Penniman can now add “Fulbright scholar.”  In January, she will head to Mexico with her family, where she will teach and attend classes at a local college while studying Mexican farming practices. She also plans to write a class curriculum in both Spanish and English that will integrate sustainable food practices into math and science lessons.

“We have a food crisis on our hands,” said Penniman, who studied environmental science before discovering a love for education. By 2050, she said, there will be 9.6 billion people on the planet. And, based on current agricultural practices, there will not be enough food on the earth to feed them.

“We need to look at the food situation around the world,” she said.

She has considerable experience linking classroom lessons to world issues. Penniman – who is half Haitian – visited the Caribbean nation after the devastating earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. She was following her sister Naima, a poet, who had volunteered to assist in relief efforts.

Penniman returned to the United States both fulfilled and inspired to bring the experience to the classroom. The next year, she challenged students to research ideas to help the Haitian community – with a capstone project that brought selected students down to the tropics for a week’s volunteering.

She vetted drivers for safety, acquired a portable water purification device, found a chef who could cook to American hygiene standards and located a safe and clean place for the troupe to stay.

To date, she has made three successful trips with students to Haiti.

“A lot of what Tech Valley is about is collaboration and critical thinking,” said Alysha Gagnon, a former Tech Valley student from Cohoes, who joined Penniman in Haiti in January 2013. “Those were two things that were key to our trip.”

Gagnon and seven other students visited a remote village with the goal of planting trees in the eroding hillside. By joining forces with locals, they planted close to a thousand trees during their visit.

“We had to problem-solve how to get around the language barrier, how to make everything work smoothly. We had to work with a large group of people ... By the end of the day, we’d have a hundred people working,” Gagnon recalled.

I visited Penniman on a summer evening on her property – Soul Fire Farm in the Town of Grafton, about 20 miles east of Albany near the Massachusetts border.

Here, only a few of the property’s 72 acres are used for growing, but the relatively small space contains more than 80 crops. These Certified Naturally Grown fruits and vegetables are distributed over the summer to 55 families in poor, urban neighborhoods in Troy and Albany – areas considered “food deserts” due to the lack of nearby grocery stores. The farm charges a sliding scale for the provisions, based on income.

During the summer, the farm hosts programs geared to minorities. Low-income students are invited up for a day to see what farming is like. Black and Hispanic adults can sign up for a week’s immersion in farming life, which involves camping in a field or a nearby yurt and spending the day learning how to grow crops.

Longer internships focusing on organic techniques and sustainability are also available. Attendees come from as far away as California. Some have been moved to tears by the experience.

After a brief tour of the farm, we visit the house that Penniman built with her husband, Jonah. The house framing was designed in a Google computer-assisted drawing program called SketchUp, and then cut by hand and assembled in two days without the use of nails. Insulation comes from dried straw bales sealed with lime and clay.

We sit down next to a full-size harp that daughter Neshima, 11, plays, and a few feet away are a collection of African drums. Across the room, two farm interns cook dinner on an ancient wood-and-gas stove as the setting sun turns the sky pink.

Penniman wears large earrings and a grin that ebbs and flows with the conversation, but never entirely disappears during our two-hour talk. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s easy to see the passion that has led to so much accomplishment in a relatively short career.

She grew up in the middle of Massachusetts, the daughter of a couple active in civil rights, music, church and environmental issues. She entered college – Clark University in Massachusetts — with the idea of learning science. But her grades were high enough to earn her a free master’s degree scholarship, and she chose education.

During her undergraduate studies, she also took a five-month trip to Ghana at the behest of a professor.

The idea was that, using what she learned in her classes, she would help improve village life by working with HIV-infected youth, helping orphans, encouraging education, or finding ways for villagers to earn more money.

“I was in way over my head,” she remembers today. “I probably wasted some people’s time ... but I think I made a modest contribution.”

In college, she also met her husband, Jonah. She was borrowing a book about Gandhi from Jonah’s suitemate at a time, and the two became friends. After becoming yoga partners and hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail together, their friendship blossomed. Both had farming experience and shared a vision: some day they would own a farm and grow food for the community.

After college, she taught for three years in Massachusetts before moving to Albany, with her husband. At the time, Penniman wanted to take some time off to care for her infant son, Emet, now 9.

Then Penniman got involved in the Free School, a non-accredited K-eighth-grade school that has operated in Albany since 1969. Penniman had the idea of creating a new high school to allow graduating students to continue the alternative curriculum of the Free School in the ninth grade.

After months of work raising funds, writing a curriculum and recruiting staff, the Harriet Tubman Free High School opened in Albany in 2005 with 40 students and three teachers. Penniman was director.

“I tried to take a year off, and I wound up starting a high school,” she said. “I couldn’t stay away.”

In 2007, Penniman heard about the opening of Tech Valley High School. The school, created by two BOCES, would recruit students from districts all over the Capital Region and use “project-based learning” to teach math, science and technology skills.

The job was perfect for Penniman. The only problem she wasn’t yet certified to teach in New York.

“I was so bold,” she says. “I called up the director. I said, ‘You need to interview me.’”

Penniman was one of four teachers hired, out of 300 applicants, for the fledgling school. Today, there are 150 students from 35 districts and 12 core teachers.

Penniman’s students can expect to spend the year problem-solving environmental issues, including the Haiti projects. Besides the tree-planting exercise, students developed a solar-powered method for dehydrating mango slices so Haitians could extend the value of their mango crop. In another year, students built a composting toilet.

“It’s exactly the kind of teaching and learning we want to see,” said Tech Valley Principal Dan Liebert, who hired Penniman. “We want to see kids using what they learn. That’s what’s going to give them inspiration – when they see people benefit from what they’re doing.”

During her career, Penniman has acquired a large list of teaching honors, including a two-time recipient of a national award for excellence from the New Technology Network and a variety of published articles for the College Board, National Science Teachers Association, The Teaching Channel, and Rethinking Schools. She has also appeared on numerous television programs on education and presented at a variety of conferences.

Last winter, Penniman was having lunch with a co-worker when the topic of “what next?” came up. Had she ever thought of applying for a Fulbright? Well, not really, Penniman replied. But she couldn’t think of a reason why not.

On April 16, Penniman got the good news.

“I had the classic ‘won the lottery’ response,” Penniman said. “Dancing, jumping, loud exclamations, accelerated heart rate. This is definitely the biggest honor of my career. It is so affirming to put my best professional thinking out into the world and receive affirmation that my contribution to education is valued.”

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