A public high school in Milwaukee has returned to its roots, using hands-on agriculture experiences to teach 21st-century skills to prepare students for high-wage careers. “People say, ‘Well, these kids can’t be farmers. Why do they need to know anything about agriculture?’” says Gail Kraus, agriculture administrator at Vincent High School of Agricultural Sciences in Milwaukee. “The truth is, everybody eats. We want them to understand where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture to feed the world, and also to be better consumers who understand what they are buying.”
And who knows? Maybe this experience will inspire some of these kids to become farmers or take advantage of one of the numerous other ag careers available.
A 2019 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed a 6% increase in Wisconsin-based agricultural jobs, totaling 435,700 positions over a five-year period from 2012 to 2017.
“I always believe that just because a student was born into an urban family rather than a rural family doesn’t mean they won’t have the passion, love or interest for agriculture,” Kraus says.
See more: Wisconsin Ag Schools Break Boundaries
Pathways to Agriculture
Since 2012, the Milwaukee Public Schools district has been transforming Vincent High School into Vincent High School of Agricultural Sciences, adding up to six agricultural pathways for students to study and explore. Six agriculture teachers lead those pathways, including animal science, horticulture, agribusiness and entrepreneurship, culinary arts, environmental science, and food science.
The school is in a unique position to focus on agriculture, as it sits on 70 acres on the northwest side of Milwaukee. On that site, the school manages a barn, a greenhouse and a large garden. It also owns cattle, goats, a horse, chickens and iguanas, among other critters. Administration even has plans for a 4-acre forest, an orchard and beehives in pursuit of even more hands-on learning experiences.
Opened in 1979, Vincent High School was the envy of agricultural programs statewide for its walk-in cooler, greenhouse and flower shop. Ag instruction eventually left the school, but administrators began the revival in 2012.
Still in use today, the greenhouse allows some of the school’s 750 students to try their hand at growing hydroponic vegetables. Students harvest lettuce, herbs and other fresh vegetables for teachers and students to buy in the café.
Following that hands-on philosophy, animal science students gather and sell eggs and even train a dog to serve as a comfort dog at the school. Food science students preserve garden produce, while culinary arts students make salads with greenhouse lettuce, garden tomatoes and chicken from the school’s meat flock. Other students raise and show sheep or beef cattle at the Wisconsin State Fair.
The school also has an FFA chapter, offering participation in career development events, conferences and supervised agricultural experiences.
Opening Up Opportunities
As much as providing a quality education to its students, the school’s more than 50 teachers strive to instill optimism and opportunity. Kraus reports that 86% of students fall at or below poverty level, some of them being homeless. Many lack hope for their situations to improve.
“For these students to be able to come in here to spend time in the barn or in the greenhouse or get some advice on resumes from these ag teachers has been huge for them,” says Kraus, who grew up on a small farm in central Wisconsin. “We have students with needs that we sometimes don’t know. Sometimes, going out to the barn to do physical labor or going in the greenhouse to water plants fills those voids and helps with those struggles.”
Through agriculture, students learn teamwork, work ethic, empathy, coping strategies and other skills that are valuable for careers in or outside of the agriculture industry.
“We are trying to give these students opportunities they haven’t been given because of where they live,” Kraus says. “I think the most rewarding aspect is when the students ask for more. You never know what is going to spark their interest or help motivate them.”