Until she enrolled in the new urban agricultural program at Vincent High School, Milwaukee resident Autumn Glass-Ruiz had never grown a vegetable let alone raised or interacted with a farm animal.
"I really like taking care of the chickens," Glass-Ruiz said as she gathered a Buff Orpington hen into her arms. "I get to interact with them and learn about their habitat. Plus I feel more of a connection to the food I eat."
Students at Vincent High School are making multiple connections to the diverse field of agriculture since the school revived its agriculture program in 2012 thanks to the multiple partnerships forged over the ensuing years between Milwaukee Public Schools and University of Wisconsin schools, MATC and local businesses.
Vincent, which is located on a large parcel of land on the city's northwest side, was originally designed to be an agriculture school in the 1970s. The school returned to its roots four years ago and hired an ag instructor for the first time in 30 years launching its new program for the 2012-13 school year.
The ag program curriculum is modeled after Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences that opened its doors in 1985.
"When I first become a board member in District 1, I remember the principal telling me about this ag program. He convinced me to take a trip to Chicago," said Milwaukee School Board President Mark Sain. "Talk about a program, an idea and opportunities for young people. This just brings such a robust educational experience for our young people."
This school year, every incoming 9th grade student will be required to take an Introduction to Agricultural Sciences course connecting them to the four agricultural "pathways" offered at the school: animal systems, plant systems, food products and processing systems and environmental service systems.
Vincent has a number of facilities that support its agriculture curriculum including a greenhouse, animal room, landscape equipment, apiary, outside gardens, aquaponics and outdoor study area. School officials hope to grow enough produce to not only supply an on-site restaurant staffed by Culinary Arts students, but to also establish a Farmers Market to sell to the public.
"We're very fortunate for our partners from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Department of Public Instruction and UW-Madison but it's going to take all hands on deck to make sure this program lasts," said MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver. "Not only are our students learning and growing and working out in the field, but this really is the epicenter for where that work is happening."
Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel said students participating in the ag program will be exposed to a diverse array of career choices in the ag field that were unknown to them before.
"In this state 1 out of 9 people are employed in the ag industry. This is a huge opportunity for young people that in the past may have missed that opportunity not because of their own doing but just because there was not an element of education in place," Brancel said. "There are over 400 different pathway you can take to get a job in agriculture."
University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Molly Jahn said there is great competition among universities to recruit students from strong high school ag programs.
"We're elbowing each other out of the way at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences to get those graduates into our school," Jahn said. "They're future is our future and the future of students here at Vincent matters tremendously to all of us in ag and beyond."
Senior Jeremy Shelley said he had no interest in animals, food or farming before he enrolled in the ag program.
"Being here at Vincent was the best thing to ever happen to me. And thanks to the ag program here I would like to attend a four year college and study veterinary medicine," Shelley said.
UW-Madison provides support for Vincent's program through funding from a five-year USDA Coordinated Agricultural Projects program. The program funds a full-time coordinator who develops the school's agricultural curriculum.
This year, the grant also will fund a consulting engagement with the retired principal of Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences to advise program leaders on the development of different curriculum.
"We are delighted to continue our commitment to the leadership and vision with the announcement that Dr. Driver has officially approved a comprehensive proactive proposal that supports the transformation of Vincent High School into Vincent High School of Agricultural Sciences," Jahn said. "Together, we have the opportunity to make national history here by bringing new and extraordinary educational and life opportunities for Vincent's students and all they will tough through their futures."
In the meantime, students are learning valuable lessons each day.
"I appreciate where my food comes from now that I know how much time and work is put into raising it," said Vincent student Jaylen Murrary.
Seeing students succeed is her greatest reward said Environmental Sciences teacher Meghan Swady.
"This is very rewarding especially for students that need project based learning. So to have a curriculum around ag that really supports projects gives students the opportunity for them to succeed where in the normal classroom they wouldn't," Swady said.
Driver said the goals set for the ag program are reachable due to the support of others.
"We have partners on all sides who are wrapping their arms around the children of this school and staff," Driver said. "In order to have strong partnership you have to have people who believe, people who have the passion and don't give up."