Scissors in hand, Sabrina Casumpang bent over a lush spike palm and sized up each leaf like a pro.
"I'm cutting the weeds - the brown ones," said Casumpang, a 16-year-old student at Atlantic City High.
Behind her, special-education teacher Theresa Mansor beamed. Mansor loves watching teenagers like Casumpang thrive in her horticultural therapy class.
Early this year, Mansor won a $10,000 grant from Toyota to expand the little program she dreamed up two years ago to help her students learn about science and nutrition and to gain job skills and confidence.
She is one of 50 winners of the national award. William Smith of Bristol High also won for his project, which allows students to investigate the flow of iron through a nearby creek.
"For students who still can't count money or have difficulty reading or with listening skills, the hands-on activities have been extremely good," said Mansor, a can-do woman with an unflappable demeanor.
Working in the greenhouse gives them important life skills, Mansor said - learning to nurture living things, focusing on jobs that may lead to future employment, and experiencing a life cycle. The tactile nature of the program is good for students with disabilities, providing hands-on science, not just a modification of a traditional curriculum.
Mansor launched her experiment in 2005, with help from a local Rutgers University Extension. She and her students - whose disabilities include Down syndrome and autism and who communicate with varying degrees of success - took what had been an old storage room and, after two solid weeks of cleaning, turned it into a greenhouse.
They added 10 outdoor plots and, with the city's blessing, a community garden. Students harvested and ate their work, with great satisfaction. Because most students don't have backyards, that was a revelation.
"We were eating the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the zucchini that came from our hands, and originally there was nothing," said Mansor.
Student Barbara Harris is proud of what she's grown.
"I like making radishes," Harris said. "Miss Theresa let us eat them, and we had homemade salad."
Along the way, glitches have popped up, reining in some of Mansor's dreams - for now. The greenhouse's ventilation system failed earlier this year, hobbling some of her plans for poinsettias and Christmas cacti to sell. And what looked like a bumper crop of tomatoes was ruined after days of heavy rain.
But there are lessons even in the setbacks. The ruined tomatoes, for instance, helped visual learners see exactly how plants sprout - when the students returned to the garden to assess the damage done by the rain, they found tiny plants growing out of rotten fruit.
Set on the second floor of the modern Atlantic City High School, the greenhouse is a haven rich with the smell of basil. Windows tinted pink and purple help plants grow. Potting tables, large sinks, and wheeled carts containing multiple flats line the room.
Two special-education classes - 13 students in one, 10 in another - use the space. Tacked up on the wall are "Greenhouse Rules" - soil is for planting only; only water for the plants; work together as a team.
On a recent weekday, Mansor directed watering efforts, helped tie aprons, stuck her fingers in dirt to check soil, helped students understand why dry soil could kill their work.
She gripped a hose and pointed to a delicate carnation that an overzealous student watered with a heavy spray. No problem, she said.
"Next time, we'll put the water on more of a misting, and we'll repot this one," she said, motioning to a hefty plant. "It's getting so big."
Student Josh Condry, an eager, chatty teenager with a passion for growing things, nodded.
"They need more water to grow," he said of the carnations.
Mansor - who began teaching special-education students eight years ago after a career as a Center City research analyst - may not know the name of every plant, but she's learning.
"I grew up in a very rural area, and I worked in gardens for my grandmother and my parents," said Mansor, who now lives in Avalon. "Am I a gardener? No, but I'm learning to be one."
Mansor has spent about half of the grant money on equipment - tools, a shed the students helped assemble - and she plans to use the rest for a watering system and other necessities. When the remaining $5,000 is gone, she plans to enlist the help of local businesses and donors to keep the garden growing. None of the money goes to Mansor.
Her plans are grand. Eventually, her classes will run a fully working greenhouse, with a floral arranging component, customer interaction, and sales to casinos and restaurants.
Academic subjects are a part of her pupils' education, but as they get older - special-education students may stay in school through age 21 - the focus shifts to life skills such as cooking, answering phones, laundering clothes, making beds, handling money.
Greenhouse work is a consistent favorite.
"For them to be able to take ownership of a living thing says a lot, because oftentimes, they're not trusted with something like this," she said. "Sometimes they water too much, but what's the worst thing that can happen? The floor dries, and we can plant more. They learn."