Growing as a Community: Building Horticulture into North High

November 23, 2016

By Echo Martin
Photos by Karl Hakanson

The greenhouse at North Community High School is a small space, just big enough to fit the 10 students in Mr. Vreeland’s 11th and 12th grade science class. Five years ago this space was just one more unused room in a school facing the cutting block. Today it is the apex of an initiative around youth development and urban agriculture in North Minneapolis, led by the University of Minnesota, social justice non-profit organization Project Sweetie Pie, and North High.

Community Roots

In 2011, North High was in crisis. They had only 62 students enrolled in a school made to hold over a thousand, an alarmingly low graduation rate, and significant pressure from the city to close the school. That was when the community that rallied for the school’s creation back in 1888 came together again to keep it open — but school officials knew things had to change. They scaled down their classes and focused on arts and communication. It was then that Michael Chaney, founder of Project Sweetie Pie, approached the school to incorporate horticulture and food science into their curriculum.

The initiative started as an after school program. “In January 2011, students started growing sweet potatoes in an unused greenhouse,” says Chaney. It quickly became apparent that the initiative, and the greenhouse, had more value to offer. “The first year we had just 5 gardens around North Minneapolis for kids to work in and fifty partners. By year two we had 10 gardens and 75 partners, and now we have 25 gardens and 130 partners.” In 2015, Chaney met with Beth Markhart, who connected him with Mary Rogers, assistant professor in organic horticulture at the University of Minnesota. The group applied for and received a grant from Healthy Food, Healthy Lives* to build a curriculum around food and human ecology in the science program for 11th and 12th graders.

The grant allowed them to hire Christian Curran to help develop curriculum and manage the program as it grew. “We wanted to use the greenhouse to teach students about horticulture and agriculture and build educational awareness around local food systems,” says Curran. “Everything anchors back to a holistic understanding of food and human systems. It also gives the students hands-on experiences, which can lead to better career prospects and opportunities.”

Integrating Horticulture

Two days a week, for two hours, the students in Kenneth Vreeland’s science class are challenged to learn about subjects under the overarching theme From the Ground Up. “We’ll start with composting one week, then soils, then stems, leaves, shoots — all the way up to atmosphere and climate and how it affects agriculture and human health,” says Curran. “Each week is basically a new topic.” Each week they invite guest speakers to go over the topic more in depth and showcase the different jobs students could pursue.

Outside of the classroom, program collaborators have incorporated events around food, ecology, and social justice to generate interest among the rest of the school. Last spring they held a school-wide event on Earth Day, and this fall they celebrated World Food Day, which had a theme of food and climate change. “It was an amazing opportunity to reach out, educate students, and get the community rallied around these principles,” says Curran. “We had roughly 2/3 of the student body involved. There were so many interested and asking questions, just learning. It was a great day.” 

Students are exposed to higher education through the curriculum to see how what they’re studying now can transfer to their future. Social and economic barriers for many students can make higher education seem out of reach, or like they might not belong there — in 2016, nearly 87% of North High students qualified for free or reduced priced lunch, and 93% were people of color. “The University’s role in this program is to try to engage these students,” says Rogers. “I want to reinforce a high school to college mentality, let them know that there are careers in food systems if this is something that they’re interested in, and that there’s a place for them at the University.” Faculty and graduate students at the University are frequently brought into the classroom as well to help reinforce the pathway to higher education that the program is trying to build. The curriculum has also brought guest speakers to North High from the University’s Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence to speak with students about how they can plan for life beyond high school.

Torrey Lau, STEM coordinator at North High, has been a major advocate for the program at the school, “Not many of our students garden, and they didn’t see it as a possibility in the city. But, through the partnership, they learned that it is isn’t hard to do, it isn’t expensive, and anyone can garden in a small urban space.”

Continuing to Grow

Chaney and Lau, along with a host of partners, have been working on building the capacity of the program even further at North High. “With more gardens and aquaponics systems that give us year-round production, we can then donate food to local food shelves, and even sell food at farmer’s markets or engage in the Minneapolis Public Schools lunch buy-back program, where Minneapolis will buy our school’s produce to use in school lunches,” says Lau. “We see the local food movement as not only a healthy option for our school and community, but also as a way to expose students to long-term life and career choices.”

The initiative at North High may have begun with a single, dilapidated greenhouse, but it has grown beyond its walls to involve the students and community. Chaney is hopeful that the success they’ve had with the current Healthy Food, Healthy Lives grant will help propel the program forward as they apply for additional funding. “We’re trying to raise awareness of the problems in our community and to make people practitioners of their own future,” says Chaney. To this end, the curriculum being built for next year will expand to include youth enterprise development and entrepreneurship opportunities.

“We’re creating an escalator to higher education through food and horticulture,” says Chaney. “It’s no easy task, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.” If you’re interested in becoming a collaborator, volunteering, or donating physical supplies or funds, please contact Christian Curran at [email protected] or Mary Rogers at [email protected]