A kindergarten pumpkin patch and high school goat pen: MPS grows a northwest agriculture hub

·5 min read
River Trail School second grade students, from left, Armanii Emerson, Micheal Smith and Taylor Smith look at tomatoes and tea leaves Thursday from their school garden in Milwaukee. River Trail is being designated as the agricultural school in Milwaukee Public Schools.
River Trail School second grade students, from left, Armanii Emerson, Micheal Smith and Taylor Smith look at tomatoes and tea leaves Thursday from their school garden in Milwaukee. River Trail is being designated as the agricultural school in Milwaukee Public Schools.

Milwaukee students will soon be able to start kindergarten learning in a campus “food forest” and end high school caring for goats on the school farm, all on the city’s northwest side.

Milwaukee Public Schools leaders hope the program prepares students for careers related to food, animals, business and conservation, while they learn about sustainable living and reap therapeutic benefits from the animals.

While Vincent High School has run an urban farm for decades, River Trail School has been building up its own program for younger students and finally won designation as a citywide agricultural specialty school from school board members this month. The plan needs final approval at a full school board meeting Aug. 25.

With the designation, River Trail will be able to hire a full-time agriculture teacher and provide busing to students from anywhere in the city starting with the 2023-24 school year. Busing was previously limited to three miles around the school.

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That could mean an enrollment boost for the school, which currently has 362 students from K-4 through eighth grade in a building that can hold 525, according to River Trail Principal Robin Swan.

Enrollment has been declining at both River Trail and Vincent in recent years: by about 35% at River Trail and 12% at Vincent between 2017 and the last school year, state data show. The district's loss as a whole was about 9%.

The hope is that the River Trail program will also create more interest in Vincent, as River Trail will be considered a "feeder" school for students who want to continue having an agricultural focus.

Tia Belle-Anderson, left, watches while Arianna Taylor helps touch up Kristine Blackwell's lamb with a hair trimmer just before presenting their lambs in class four of the Hampshire division in the Market Lamb Show at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2019. Their lambs' fur had been growing so quickly that the Vincent High School students had to touch up their fur each day of the fair with the trimmers.
Tia Belle-Anderson, left, watches while Arianna Taylor helps touch up Kristine Blackwell's lamb with a hair trimmer just before presenting their lambs in class four of the Hampshire division in the Market Lamb Show at the Wisconsin State Fair in 2019. Their lambs' fur had been growing so quickly that the Vincent High School students had to touch up their fur each day of the fair with the trimmers.

River Trail follows Vincent High School's agricultural focus

Agriculture was foundational to Vincent when it first opened in the 1970s. The program was cut in the early 1990s under budget pressure, then revived in 2012.

Vincent now has a barn with goats, lambs, chickens, ducks and a pony, along with fields of crops and greenhouses. Inside a classroom, there's a 30-pound tortoise named Norm, a bunny that rides around in a stroller and a school dog.

Vincent High School junior Damir Lipsey, from left, junior Elijah Lewis and sophomore Akol Riak, all 17, listen to Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes during his visit in celebration of Wisconsin Garden Day on May 19 in Milwaukee.
Vincent High School junior Damir Lipsey, from left, junior Elijah Lewis and sophomore Akol Riak, all 17, listen to Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes during his visit in celebration of Wisconsin Garden Day on May 19 in Milwaukee.

At River Trail, Swan and her school’s agriculture committee have been building toward this recognition with smaller steps for nearly a decade, starting with a gift from the American Heart Association for raised garden beds they filled with vegetables.

"One of our slogans here is we want our little hands to get dirty so that they can eat clean by growing their own organic produce," Swan said.

A few years later, they built a compost system. Then came the pumpkin patch, hydroponic machines to grow greens, two 80-foot hoop houses to keep crops warm in colder months, and three indoor greenhouses to start seeds.

"We just keep looking for more and more ways to expand the program by reaching out through the community and doing a lot of things ourselves, getting dirty and doing it with our own hands," said Joshua Gonzalez, a second grade teacher and chair of the agriculture committee.

River Trail School second grade teacher Josh Gonzalez shows his class a gourd in their garden Thursday at the school. "Giving the kids new experiences," he said is his favorite part. "They (gardening, etc.) are tangible real-life skills that they can share in the community."
River Trail School second grade teacher Josh Gonzalez shows his class a gourd in their garden Thursday at the school. "Giving the kids new experiences," he said is his favorite part. "They (gardening, etc.) are tangible real-life skills that they can share in the community."

Teachers have kept the systems running, often on their own time.

"It's very rare that a teacher is paid for extra time that is put in to drive over on the weekend and water the garden," said Tina Johnson, a special education teacher and member of the agriculture committee. "There were many summers that I would drive over with my daughters and my grandson and we would water, we would weed, and walk around and make sure everything is OK."

'Food forest' underway with MMSD

Their next project: a forest of 134 fruit and nut trees, which could eventually be maintained by sheep and chickens, with a turkey or goose to protect them.

Working with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, the school already got grant funding for the forest. It will use swales and berms to keep rainwater on the property and nurturing the trees rather than flowing off the property and picking up pollutants on its way to the lake.

With the self-watering system, and the animals grazing the fallen fruit and fertilizing the soil, the hope is the forest will largely be self-sustaining.

The school is bringing in 5-foot-6-inch-tall trees that should produce hazelnuts, chestnuts and Asian pears by next year. They also plan to plant raspberry and blackberries. Excavation is already underway.

Eventually, Swan hopes the students will help sell produce from the school at farmers markets around the city. The students can't be paid, Swan said, but money can go into students' field trip funds and support other school activities and supplies.

Swan said she hopes students will be inspired in a range of career paths like agriculture science, teaching, culinary arts, natural medicine, veterinary services, nutrition, farm-to-table restaurants and marketing.

The school's designation comes after the MPS school board passed a resolution July 28 to cut greenhouse emissions by 45% by 2030 and support the national Justice 40 Initiative goal to ensure 40% of jobs related to climate go to marginalized communities.

That includes careers that the agriculture program could nurture, said school board member Marva Herndon, who co-sponsored the resolution and represents River Trail and Vincent.

"Those professions are the real professions of tomorrow because we cannot ignore climate change," Herndon said. "We want to be able to use our schools as the teaching mechanism."

Contact Rory Linnane at rory.linnane@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RoryLinnane

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: MPS offers K-12 agriculture at River Trail, Vincent schools