CourseCo Develops Innovative Educational Program for Inner-City Youth

In an attempt to improve the lives of Oakland’s inner-city youth, CourseCo, Inc. is introducing Castlemont High School students to golf maintenance and other green-industry management careers through its partnership with the city at Metropolitan Golf Links (GL). Students participating in the Oakland Turfgrass Education Initiative program are learning about opportunities available in this non-traditional employment sector for inner-city youth and have the chance to pursue college degrees through educational programs offered at local community colleges and California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo (Cal-Poly SLO). The new course will be an educational tool available to students and educators.

“Children of color in the inner city are being afforded the opportunity with the city and CourseCo to explore interests in golf and turf management,” said Eric Edgerly, an environmental horticulture teacher who is overseeing the Castlemont program. “CourseCo is putting its money where its mouth is and is very serious about getting children into this program. We have about 80 students who are taking course work at the moment.”

The “Green Industry” is a growing field that includes landscape management, wholesale and retail nursery management, sports turf management, landscape architecture, and golf course management. High-paying positions include landscape design and architecture, contracting, irrigation design and construction, irrigation operations technicians, manufacturers’ representatives, golf course superintendents, mechanics and business managers.

“We’re trying to plant the idea in the minds of inner-city kids that they can have jobs in places they never considered possible before,” said Raymond Davies, CourseCo’s director of golf course maintenance and construction and the man largely responsible for developing the program.

Tom Branca, chairman of the Landscape Horticulture Department at Merritt College, a community college taking part in the new program, was excited about the initiative. “The way CourseCo is raising students’ interest is wonderful,” he said. “Ray has been great. His heart is really in the right place. And CourseCo has always been there for me as an educator.”

CourseCo was the successful bidder two years ago to build, lease and operate a new course, known as Metropolitan Golf Links, on the site of the former Lew Galbraith Golf Course. The course site has received 1.5 million cubic yards of dredge spoils from San Francisco Bay. Working with former PGA Tour star Johnny Miller and architect Fred Bliss, CourseCo is constructing the new course on the elevated site. CourseCo will wrap up construction this summer. The new facility, with views of San Francisco and the bay, will open in May 2003.

The city asked CourseCo to develop a job-training component as part of the course project. CourseCo worked on this program for two years before it had a deal with the city. In addition to city officials, educational institutions and Future Farmers of America (FFA), Davies also secured cooperation from the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), United States Golf Association, University of California Cooperative Extension and several other entities. Davies sees this as a model that could be adopted by the FFA and GCSAA in other parts of the country.

“We believe in this so strongly that we would have moved forward with it whether we got the Oakland project or not,” he said. “It doesn’t put anything on the bottom line, but it’s very consistent with CourseCo’s mission in the communities we serve.”

The original concept was to create a relationship between local high schools and FFA, using the course as a living laboratory for field experiments, on-site work experience, and field trips to supplement classroom work. Davies saw an opportunity to expand the program to include the Peralta College District and Cal-Poly SLO. The program now involves a potential educational path consisting of a two-year high school program at Castlemont, followed by two years at Peralta’s Merritt College, and finally two years at Cal-Poly SLO. Students can travel as far as they choose along this academic path with career opportunities available for those getting off at any educational level. “It’s really up to the students where they want to go,” Davies said.

Building from the existing landscape management curriculum at Castlemont, CourseCo worked with Edgerly to include basic horticultural concepts and turfgrass management topics in the new high school curriculum. The Castlemont program, which may be repeated at other Oakland schools, borrows extensively from an existing FFA turf and golf course management curriculum developed in conjunction with the Washington Golf Course Superintendents Association and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA). Castlemont recently became an FFA member making it eligible for FFA grants, according to Edgerly, a University of California-Davis College of Agriculture graduate.

This is the first year of Castlemont’s Golf and Turf Management Program. Most of the 80 students are juniors, with a few seniors and a handful of younger students. The focus is on the basics of landscaping and green industry terminology. “We’re investigating what makes plants grow, different types of fertilizers, and that sort of thing,” Edgerly said. Spring and early summer will see a number of guest speakers recruited into the classroom with CourseCo’s assistance. Edgerly also plans several special projects including: removing the asphalt in the outside cafeteria area and putting in turf; restoring the football field; and installing a drip irrigation system in the community garden.

Oakland Golf, LLC, a CourseCo company whose partners include former Oakland Raiders’ tight end Raymond Chester and real-estate investor Ned Speiker, is developing Metropolitan GL in partnership with the city and the Port of Oakland. Nearby Lake Chabot Golf Course has agreed to take on two high school interns this summer. “Lake Chabot wants interns who are really serious about this,” said former Northern California Golf Superintendents Association President Gary Carls, an advisor for the overall educational initiative. “It’s not just a summer job for someone looking to kill some time. They really want to train these interns and get them in the business long term.”

Once Metropolitan GL reopens next spring, students will be assigned numerous internships and special projects. The golf course will become an extension of the classroom. “We’re looking forward to getting students involved in every area of the golf course,” said Edgerly, noting the “fallacy” that inner city youth are not interested in horticulture. “The reason you don’t have many people of color in the horticulture industry is because the opportunity hasn’t been afforded to them. These children are being given an opportunity and they want to grasp it. I take my hat off to CourseCo. They understand the children around here want to be involved. Giving them the opportunity to work on the golf course rather than simply importing employees is very impressive.”

Students completing Castlemont High’s Golf and Turf Management program can matriculate to Merritt College’s Department of Landscape Horticulture. Merritt instructors have met with CourseCo representatives to develop a curriculum that would reach out to high school students and others interested in golf and sports turf management careers.

“What appealed to me most is that students can make a decent wage in this profession and work outdoors,” said Merritt College’s Branca. “The skills of entry-level grounds maintenance workers could also be improved by providing basic knowledge that would help them make better decisions as they moved up the career ladder.”

To date, Merritt has introduced two new classes with an emphasis on golf and sports turf. The community college also expanded two existing horticulture classes to include more information about those topics. Branca has submitted a proposal to the state to develop a two-year sports turf certificate program that should be in place by this fall. Students would develop a sound foundation in basic horticultural principles plus an orientation in golf and sports turf maintenance. The basic certificate would require 19 units and the top level 44-1/2 units of horticulture classes. Certificate holders could also earn an associate’s degree by completing 60 total educational units.

A Merritt College job market survey found associate degree holders could realistically hope to attain such positions as horticulturist (paying $18,000-$24,000 annually); landscape foreman ($20,000-$30,000); plant health-care technician ($20,000-$30,000); manufacturer’s sales representative ($25,000 plus commission); irrigation technician ($20,000-$35,000); and assistant golf course superintendent ($20,000-$55,000).

CourseCo is also helping recruit speakers for Merritt. “Ray and I are co-instructing a seminar this spring,” Carls said. “The idea is to expose students to various opportunities on golf courses, sports fields, park department facilities and other areas. We’ll have three, six-hour Saturday sessions where the students meet with people from those areas and become familiar with what they do.”

In addition to training students to enter the workforce upon graduation, the Merritt College program is also designed to feed students into Cal-Poly SLO’s four-year horticultural program. As students progress from high school to Merritt to Cal-Poly SLO, the educational training focus will narrow to their selected field of interest.

Dr. David Green is assistant professor in horticulture and crop science at Cal-Poly SLO’s school of agriculture. He credits CourseCo with spearheading a program that reaches into the junior high and high schools, when students first begin thinking about career paths. “The California green industry is struggling with the lack of people coming into the business,” he said. “There’s a surplus of jobs, but students don’t realize they are there. They see all the great opportunities available in the Silicon Valley industries. But horticulture is often ignored.” Cal-Poly SLO horticulture graduates are snatched up very quickly by employers and at surprisingly strong salaries, Green said. “California is probably the No. 1 state for horticultural jobs. Bachelor of science graduates generally start between $25,000 and $40,000. And you’re not stuck in front of a computer all day. Within a couple years, most students are making more than $40,000. We’ve had some students start as high as $45,000. Most high school kids see agriculture as a low-end profession. They’ve seen migrant workers picking in the fields and think that’s all there is too it. We’re training managers and there’s a lot of opportunity for those people.” Opportunity and innovative ideas are what this program is all about, Davies said. “I wanted to use the FFA, which isn’t normally associated with urban areas, and the interest inner city kids had with Tiger Woods to introduce them to the green industry. Golf and golf courses are the hook to teach them the principles of horticulture. They can use that knowledge to get a job right out of high school, junior college or a four-year college.” CourseCo Inc. is a Petaluma, Calif.-based management company that operates daily-fee courses, primarily in Northern California. The company currently manages 11 facilities and has another three under construction or in planning. For more information, contact CourseCo Inc., PO Box 1019, Petaluma, CA 94953-1019; telephone 707-763-0335; facsimile 707-763-8355; email; web site