Seeds of growth: Cyber school unveils ag facility, plans tech, health care centers
Maurice “Reese” Flurie III doesn't spend much time worrying about enrollment growth or graduation rates.
The CEO of Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Charter Academy — which has grown to 9,200 students statewide from about 3,000 a decade ago — said his primary focus is preparing high school students for future careers.
If the 15-year-old cyber charter school does that, he believes, more students will come.
The school’s career-minded focus led recently to the development of AgWorks, the first of three high school educational programs that the school plans to launch for students in Pennsylvania to get hands-on experience in various careers. AgWorks is tailored to career training for students interested in agriculture and environmental science professions.
AgWorks, which opened Dec. 11, is a living laboratory with the largest known public educational aquaponics facility in the country. It is located in the old atrium of the former PSECU headquarters on Cameron Street.
Commonwealth bought the 180,000-square-foot building next to the state Farm Show complex for $5 million in 2016, and has spent about $12 million renovating the facility to be its home base.
The 6,100-square-foot AgWorks center was funded by a federal grant and designed by Harrisburg-based Integrated Agriculture Systems, or INTAG Systems. It uses fish waste and water to fertilize vegetables, plants and trees in climate-controlled spaces.
There is no dirt and no pesticides, and the system is designed to treat and re-use its water.
School officials see AgWorks — a research facility that can grow about 3,000 plants and trees and house more than 400 tilapia, koi and prawn — as a hands-on laboratory experience for students interested in agricultural careers, or other science and engineering fields.
"We want to partner with employers and meet labor demands," said Tom Longenecker, the school's COO.
The school has other sectors in its sights besides agriculture, officials said.
CCA is currently exploring two other educational centers it wants to build that would be centered around specialized training for students who aspire to work in medical and technology-related careers.
Those facilities would be called MedWorks and TechWorks. CCA wants to buy buildings in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas for those centers.
Longenecker said the goal is to start building at least one within the next year, but the timing will depend on what real estate is available in the school’s target markets.
Officials said the school probably needs about 100,000 square feet of space in each market. The focus, Flurie said, will be buying an existing building and renovating it for the new centers.
Flurie said the school has had preliminary discussions with employers in health care and tech in those markets. He believes CCA can play a vital role in helping to train the next generation of medical researchers and lab specialists, as well as provide early training for robotics professionals and drone pilots.
“We want to have students prepared for those job sectors,” Flurie said.
As it does with its Harrisburg facility, CCA plans to make the new centers open to the public and other schools that want to use them for field trips. And if they want, employers can lease space in the buildings to partner with the school on internship and mentorship opportunities for CCA students.
In Harrisburg, CCA has about 40,000 square feet of space available to lease, which helps generate revenue for the school. Officials also expect some future revenue from the student ventures at AgWorks and the other programs in the pipeline.
“We want students to help run them like a business,” Flurie said.
The AgWorks facility is primarily for student research. But it also is producing some food for a handful of local restaurants and the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. For now, the food is being donated.
As the AgWorks program expands this winter, Flurie said, the plan is for students to work more closely with local restaurants on supply chain and grow more food for the restaurants.
AgWorks can grow tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, herbs and microgreens, among other produce, as well as tilapia. The facility also is raising koi fish that it plans to sell to landscapers, and it may eventually add prawn, catfish and sturgeon.
Sales from AgWorks are not going to be a “budget balancer” for the school, Flurie said. The goal is to help students understand real-world commercial settings and offset some research costs for the school.
“Students are building that modeling now for production,” he said. “Right now we’re giving (food) away to restaurants and the food banks as they start to learn. The experts will help us price it appropriately. Our students then have to do the production and figure out pricing and how much we can produce.”