A Big-City Ag High School Blossoms

It’s just after lunch at Milwaukee Vincent, and students are settling into their two-hour Advanced Animal Science class. Using their fingers to write on an electronic whiteboard, they quickly assign themselves animal care tasks. There is much to keep them busy.

While some kids clean the rabbit and chinchilla cages, others try to hold the hedgehog without getting pricked or feed the 1,000 crickets purchased for conducting breeding experiments. (They eat fresh vegetables.) The classroom is abuzz—not with the beehives located a few hundred yards away outside—but with talk about the newest member of the menagerie, a goat named Susan. A half dozen students head out to the pole shed that now accommodates Susan’s pen. Water sloshes out of the five-gallon buckets students pull in a wagon toward the goat, the 26 chickens and the two ducks. The refrigerator is already full of eggs, but kids find seven more under one broody bird.

Forty-two buses bring students to the 70-acre North Side campus from all parts of Milwaukee. While the school was built in the late ’70s to focus on international studies, agribusiness and natural resources, it has strayed from that specialization over the past few decades.

But new life is being breathed into the school’s original mission, in part due to the infusion of funding through a USDA grant obtained by the University of Wisconsin–Madison to develop an agricultural curriculum at the high school. This, plus four new ag teachers and a principal who is dedicated to the school’s agricultural roots, are starting to turn things around.

“Agriculture may sound like an unusual choice for a big-city high school, but our expansive campus and, more importantly, significant career opportunities in the field, make for a strong match,” says principal Daryl Burns. “All the agricultural pathways help students build the skills needed for in-demand STEM careers and the skills needed for success in almost any career, as well as in college and in life.”

Each freshman is required to take a yearlong Introduction to Agricultural Sciences class. Students can then pursue four different pathways: Animal Science, Horticulture Science, Food Science and Environmental Science. A three-room greenhouse is back in use, and an enormous vegetable garden, chicken coop, animal room, apiary and aquaponics facility in which fish and plants are grown together have been added.

And the school has been renamed Vincent Agricultural High School. Gail Kraus, an agricultural outreach specialist, is helping the Milwaukee Public Schools initiative to see Vincent grow into its new name. Now in her fourth year there, she is funded through the CALS-based Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project grant.

“This transformation will provide Vincent students the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning that builds the necessary knowledge and skills for one of Wisconsin’s largest industries,” says Kraus.

Much of the inspiration for bringing the school back to its roots comes from CALS agronomy professor Molly Jahn, who had visited and was impressed by the Chicago High School for Agricultural Science (CHSAS). There, students clamor for enrollment space because of its curriculum and reputation as a safe school that promotes academic excellence.

“We want Vincent to be as desirable to attend as CHSAS,” says Jahn. “Through the new ag curriculum, students may be prepared for jobs right out of high school or go on to college to study things they would not otherwise have been exposed to. I envision the day when the ag curriculum at Vincent will be used as a model for other urban high schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere.”

Some Vincent students have completed the college application process. Jeremy Shelly, a senior who is a member of the National Honor Society, wants to become a veterinarian. Dawson Yang is aiming for UW–Green Bay.

“I took the Intro to Environmental Sciences class here and loved it,” says Yang, who also likes to hunt, fish and camp. “I want to study environmental sciences and maybe one day work for the Department of Natural Resources.”