There is a wonderful opportunity brewing for the right teacher to resurrect and revitalize the agriculture program at East High School.  East was the only district high school that offered agriculture classes, but they ended a couple of years ago when long-time teacher Mary Klecker retired.

The pieces seem to be falling into place for a new program.  I suspect that a new program or course would be more focused on urban agriculture, organic farming, principles of sustainability, nutrition and food policy than the previous courses were.

I learned about the topic this week when I stopped by a very rainy Troy Gardens for a tour on Thursday morning (the rain kept us under a tent but those of us hoping for a tour still learned a lot about the program), and yesterday visited the East High Youth Farm, along with the school garden at Glendale Elementary, as part of the 8th annual community gardens bike tour sponsored by the Community Action Coalition and led by Mayor Dave.

Community GroundWorks is the local non-profit organization that operates the many programs at Troy Gardens and more.  Troy Gardens spreads over 26 acres on the north side and includes more than 300 community garden plots, natural areas, a five-acre organic farm that is operated as a CSA, and a kid’s garden.  Our schools do not currently have any ongoing programs at Troy Gardens, but MSCR summer programs regularly visit the kid’s garden and the site is a popular destination for school field trips.

The East High Youth Farm (sort of an unfortunate name, I think, as it sounds like a facility for juvenile offenders) is the outgrowth of a partnership between Community Groundworks, the Goodman Community Center and East High School.  The farm is near Kennedy School (and a bit of a distance from East) and is, if I’m not mistaken, the same land that was utilized in connection with the former ag classes at East.

Last summer, as part of the Madison Youth Grow Local initiative, the land was planted once more.  Fifteen students, led by Megan Cain of Community GroundWorks and East High teacher Kitty King, turned about 1/8 of an acre into a garden. Most of the harvest was delivered to the food pantry at the Goodman Community Center.

This summer, the garden has doubled in size, with about a quarter of an acre given over to organic crops that are tended by a group of students from East and Shabazz, as well as volunteers and interns. About 20 middle school students in a Goodman Community Center summer camp program look after their own plot as well.  The harvest will again be donated to the food pantry at the Goodman Center, and the crops, chosen with the with the food needs of the pantry-users in mind, seem to feature a lot of potatoes, peppers, onions and garlic.  You can read more about the farm here.

The East High component of the program is spearheaded by cross-categorical teacher Kitty King and thus far has been designed primarily for special ed students.  Kitty would like to expand and beef up the curriculum, bring in an East science or other teacher to co-teach the class, and serve a full spectrum of students.

It seems to me this is quite an opportunity to develop an innovative class that features service learning, differentiated curriculum for a broad and inclusive range of students, and terrific partnering possibilities with Community Groundworks and Goodman, two of the very best of the many fine non-profits in our community.

I’d think a re-vamped ag class could include sections on farming and nutrition, of course, but opportunities could also be provided for interested students to dive into and critically examine the panoply of issues involving sustainability and the politics of food, and the whole sort of Michael Pollan agenda.

I have thought for a while that we should consider expanding our summer school classes beyond credit recovery courses (important as they are), and this type of class would be a natural candidate for a summer component.  Perhaps the class could be a two-semester offering, beginning in the spring semester of the year and continuing as a summer school class.

The facilities seem to be in place.  East received a $9,500 Aristos grant for the program.  The greenhouse at East has been renovated and is suitable for planting seedlings in the spring that can later be replanted at the farm.

The kind of class I have in mind would certainly be in line with the zeitgeist, given all that’s percolating in the community about sustainable agriculture, healthy foods and nutrition,  service learning and the enthusiastic reception given to the Badger Rock charter school proposal.

I can’t help thinking that, with the right teacher or teachers to collaborate with and build on the terrific work that Kitty King is already doing, there is a great class here waiting to happen.

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