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Austin school preparing students with special needs for bright future with these hands-on courses

Not only is Clifton home to the largest greenhouse in the district, but the students are also one of the only producers of a certain crop in the entire state!

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin Clifton Career Development School is the latest campus featured on KVUE Daybreak's "Back to School" series. Their horticulture program is where students are able to perfect their green thumbs and even get a jump start on their career goals.

At Clifton, students receive special education services while also getting hands-on experience in careers they may be interested in pursuing after graduation. The campus has a focus on career and technology, so even while in school, students are able to get on-the-job training and professional certifications.

Clifton offers courses in welding, animal science, child care, culinary arts, health sciences, horticulture and hospitality. All students eventually take industry-standard certification exams to ensure they are ready to embark on their careers.

"Our mission is to provide equitable access towards a rigorous career and technical students," said Tony Dishner, who is the principal at Clifton. "For some of our families, it's been life-changing. Our students now have realistic career goals and they have their certification to back those career goals."

The classes offered at Clifton are geared toward grades 10-12, for students with a wide variety of special needs.

"It gives our students the opportunity to go into areas that they may not have thought to before. Most of our students going into a welding program may not have ever thought of a welding career," Dishner explained. "Most of the students in our horticulture program may not have ever had experience with a greenhouse. So we're just trying to level the playing field for our students. The passing rate is 94% and so that's even higher than some of the general education in our counterparts. We're very proud of that."

Though students first meet in the classroom for the horticulture program, a big part of the day is spent outside. On the campus grounds, you'll notice a greenhouse. If you go inside, it's neatly filled with vibrant colors of different flowers and plants lined up in rows and hanging from the ceiling. 

PHOTOS: Horticulture program at Clifton Career Development School

Savanna Lee graduated from the program and is a continue-on student. She shared her time with the program has really influenced her love for being outside and learning about plants.

"We definitely enjoy it. Some of them [students] like being outside and getting to work with the plants and get their hands dirty. Some, not most messing with their dirt is the greatest thing, but for others it's really nice," she said. "They definitely enjoy it," Lee said. "Plants are really unique and cool and really neat to study. Gardening is really relaxing and getting to work out here and get fresh air every day, that's really nice. I think it's really neat that one of the programs they offer here happens to be horticulture and that the students get to work outside among the plants." 

The classroom and greenhouse are led by Daniel Nelson, the horticulture teacher at Clifton.

"It's really nice getting to see the kids get excited about growing something and there's something magical about that," Nelson said. "We have 30 students in our program but they're usually divided up so we deal with about 10 at a time. It's a small group atmosphere and so the small group dynamic really gives us a chance to develop and that's what makes it really rewarding."

Not only is Clifton home to the largest greenhouse, but they are also one of the only producers of pearl oyster mushrooms in the state. The gourmet mushrooms are made available to the public at two local urban farmer's markets: Eden East Farm and Boggy Creek Farm.

RAW: Austin students growing gourmet mushrooms in school program

"Some people seem a little surprised and shocked, but they find it really cool and neat that students are the ones who are doing this," Lee said. "For sure people find it surprising that there is a school like this that has these programs."

Senior Justin Zeng is one of several students trusted with making sure the oyster mushrooms are grown to perfection, cleaned and ready for market.

"We harvest them and we take the mushrooms to the supermarket or a farm," Zeng said. "Oh, it's fun alright!"  

In addition to the mushrooms, Austinites are also able to buy some of the different plants and flowers are grown right out of the Clifton greenhouse. 

To keep up with what's new at Clifton and the different programs offered at the school, click here.