The idea sounds strange. All the more so, when a tilapia ranch is being run by a bunch of 12-year-old kids in the basement of their middle school.
This school, the Green Street Academy in Baltimore, also has chickens in class. And on a recent morning, the students were outside in a greenhouse, learning to plant lettuce, kale, and other vegetables.
All this unorthodox learning is happening not at some expensive private school out in the suburbs. It’s unfolding at the academy, which is a public middle school at 201 N. Bend Road on Baltimore’s West Side. It has 275 students, most from lower-income homes.
The school teaches conservation and sustainability, in addition to traditional subjects and problem-solving skills. The goal is to prepare young people for the green economy of the future -– for example, to become organic farmers, wind turbine engineers, or aquaculture business owners. Or to pursue other job options not yet imagined.
I recently took a tour of the school’s indoor and outdoor classrooms. I observed its raised gardens and chicken coops. I watched a playground where students in uniforms with green ties played a game called “predator and prey,” which teaches about the food chain and the dangers of overconsumption.
In the school’s front lobby are banners proclaiming, “Work Green, Learn Green, Dream Green.”
I had to ask: is this some form of liberal indoctrination?
Teacher Mike Rennard responded that teaching students to use natural resources wisely should not be viewed as anything but mainstream. “We try to teach people to be responsible. So we don’t have an agenda,” Rennard said. “We present kids with questions, in terms of how can we make sure that what we are doing now as a country and as a planet can keep going forever.”
The school opened in the fall of 2010 as one of six new middle schools in Baltimore with special themes – such as technology and design –- to which all students can apply. If too many students apply for a given school, the administration picks those admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. The academy was co-founded by veteran principal Ed Cozzolino.
“It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Cozzolino said. “But it’s also been one of the most gratifying, to be able to create a school that I know, based on my experiences in the classroom, is what challenges, motivates and inspires kids.”
Is it working? Well, the Green Street Academy is using the building of the old West Baltimore Middle School, which was shut down in part because so many kids dropped out. The new academy, by contrast, has a waiting list of 50 students who want to get in. Student scores on a Maryland standardized test jumped 20 percent this year, compared to last, according to school administrators.
D’John Jackson, a seventh grader, said he loves the school. “If you sit in a classroom all day, you won’t really learn much about life,” Jackson said.
So does Kenneth Bland, 12. Every morning, he looks forward to coming to his school, and enjoys checking up on his chickens.
“My friends (in other schools) don’t have as much fun with their teachers and they are not as close with their teachers,” Bland said. “But at the Green Street Academy, we really have nice teachers, and we really like to be in our classes.”
They students here are learning how to grow fish -– tilapia -– in two huge blue plastic tanks in the schools’ basement. The 200 fish are fed organic pellets. Waste from the fish is recycled to fertilize the greenhouse outside school, where students grow basil, lettuce, kale, and collards.
(In some places around the world, tilapia farming occasionally has been criticized, because the waste has been released to nearby waterways, or because the fish –- native to Africa -– have been released to rivers where they are not native. At this school, however, the waste is being handled responsibly, and the fish are not released. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch webpage says farmed tilapia raised in the U.S. is a "best choice" for consumers, but that people should avoid farmed tilapia from China and Taiwan.)
The students at the Green Street Academy are not training to become hippies in the woods. They are figuring out how to be capitalists, and how to brand and market their organic fish and vegetables to local restaurants. They are also producing healthy food for an urban area without many grocery stores or much fresh produce.
That means nutrition for the neighborhood, and food for young minds.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo by author)