News Extra-Special Winston County Students Cultivate Real-Life Skills

Extra-Special Winston County Students Cultivate Real-Life Skills

Extra-Special Winston County Students Cultivate Real-Life Skills
March 1, 2024 |

By Tanner Hood

Jeff McKinney stands in a greenhouse filled with fresh lettuce, corn, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers while teaching an extra-special group of students the importance of agriculture. 

“I realized there was a particular group not being served,” said McKinney, an agriscience teacher at Haleyville High School in Winston County. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but they weren’t provided some of the same classroom experiences as others.”

These high schoolers have mental or physical disadvantages or disabilities. They’re also part of a transition program cultivating skills needed for life after graduation. 

Agriculture-based lessons are thanks to McKinney and special education teacher Alyssa Elliot. McKinney said his original goal was to help students benefit from learning the basics of growing plants and raising animals. 

“We teach them hands-on skills like running a cash register, doing a point of sale, scheduling on a calendar, working with customers and how to make change,” McKinney said. “It has evolved to more than plants. We teach them about animals and woodworking as well.” 

Amber Springer opens the chicken coop she and fellow students assembled during agriscience classes tailored for those with special needs.

Elliot shares McKinney’s enthusiasm. 

“We incorporate a lot of transition, which is getting them ready for outside life, for maybe doing a job,” she said. “We’re exceeding limits, going above and beyond, and having fun.” 

Joshua Criddle is an example of students pushing the barrier. Criddle’s legs and arms never fully developed. He instead uses innovative maneuvers, determination and McKinney’s encouragement to plant and water seeds in the greenhouse. It’s an activity he said he loves. 

McKinney said several students have amazed themselves at what they can do and are stepping outside their comfort zones in other areas. This includes Criddle. Though naturally shy, he has blossomed under the program’s influence and now speaks in front of other classes and groups.

Criddle’s message is simple: “Try your best. Don’t give up. Don’t say, ‘I can’t.’” 

In addition to plants, the class has a flock of chickens. Another student, Amber Springer, said she’s fond of her new feathered friends.

“I want to chicken farm,” Springer said. “I want a bunch of them. I like to feed, water and play with them.”

McKinney said it’s encouraging to see the students become partial to poultry. 

“We affectionately refer to the kids as ‘chicken tenders,’” McKinney said. “They’re required to care for the chickens every day. The students not only feed and water, but they must pick them up and examine every single chicken.” 

Joshua Criddle demonstrates his ability to innovatively plant seeds.

The program hasn’t been without challenges. McKinney and Elliot said learning levels vary among students.

“We try to find what they can and will do and capitalize on that,” McKinney said. “There’s a lot of trial and error, but these aren’t issues. They’re opportunities to better ourselves.”

Elliot said community support has been amazing to witness. A top supporter is Winston County Extension Coordinator Zack Brannon, who helped secure a grant to provide a hydroponic system for the school’s greenhouse. 

“Mr. McKinney told me what these students were doing, and I wanted to help,” said Brannon, a Winston County Farmers Federation board member. “I love everything about this program.”

McKinney believes the connections between Brannon and the class have been more than coincidental. 

“It’s amazing how God has connected us all together,” McKinney said. “He has pulled us all toward this common goal of helping students better themselves.” 

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