School District Dives into Aquaponics; A Progressive Approach to Hard Times

I am the greenhouse manager for Southeast Island School District (SISD), whose district office is located in Thorne Bay, Alaska on Prince of Wales (P.O.W.) Island. SISD serves roughly 160 students throughout 9 communities; 7 on P.O.W., 1 on nearby Baranof Island, and 1 on the mainland. It’s got to be one of the only school districts in the state, and definitely in the “bush”, that has an employee with that title, “greenhouse manager”.

Why would a school district, with tightening budgets, increased high-stakes testing demands, new standards (Common Core), teacher-evaluation criteria, and assessments, along with everything else schools are constantly bombarded with, be investing in that position; in greenhouses? A simple answer, good leadership.

When the going gets tough and resources are scarce, many curl up in a ball, offering less to their students (bookwork is cheap), and wait for the storm to pass (more handouts please?). Fact is, it may never be the same as it was in the “glory days of Alaska”, when oil money ran as thick as salmon in our streams and schools budgets were robust.

I’m lucky to work for a district that chose a different reaction to education’s current challenges, the more “progressive” approach. They got creative, tweaked some of their current practices and offerings, and started thinking and investing long term; offering their students more for less.

They bought a café, bakery equipment, a tortilla machine. New course offerings were implemented that involved entrepreneurship, business, and S.T.E.M. They wrote and received grants to install wood-fired boilers, orchards, chicken coups, gardens, and, you guessed it, greenhouses.

The first greenhouse, constructed 3 years ago, was 24’ x 40’ and operated on a soilless, hyproponic platform (see article http://www.adn.com/article/20140513/remote-thorne-bay-students-are-growing-more-ways-one-0). While it experienced some success, and definitely paved the way for future endeavors, there were still challenges and setbacks to overcome. First and foremost, the buckets of water-soluble nutrients needed in that type of system are not manufactured or sold locally, so shipping them cost the environment, and the district. Secondly, hyproponic systems are sensitive and unforgiving, two factors that don’t readily lend itself to gardening with kids of all ages.

So what did the district do; count its losses, throw in the towel? No, or maybe “hell no”. They built two more greenhouses, using what they’d learned from the first to improve upon their scheme. The summer of 2015 saw the completion of two identical greenhouses in two of its smaller, satellite sites, Naukati and Kasaan. The new units are 24’ x 36’ and are setup for aquaponics; where aquaculture (fish farming) meets hydroponics (soilless growing).

(If you’re reading this blog post, I’m going to assume you have a rough idea about what aquaponics is so as not to overlap on the wealth of information available on the subject by much more qualified individuals; if not, see this video for a brief explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nIL9hWW3-Q)

Why is aquaponics better for our school district?

  1. The fish supply the nutrients to the plants; less purchasing and shipping of buckets.
  2. *The fish create a secondary market.
  3. The system is more child-friendly with easier, consistent tasks.
  4. The system is closed loop, where the water never needs to be dumped… ever.
  5. And more… (more organic, educational, etc.)

So, as of July 15, 2015, the school district has 3 operational, albeit empty, aquaponic greenhouses ready to go.

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And this is where I come in…

I once had a friend (who had run in the Iditarod a couple times) tell me, “everybody likes to stroke a winning dog’s back”.  So, in a nutshell, my job is to make the greenhouses into a “winning dog” (i.e. very successful).

My first task, as I see it, is to collaboratively form a “business plan” for the greenhouses. What is their purpose, budget, staff? What will we produce/grow? Where are our “markets” and how will we get things there (distribution)? How will they be used as an education tool? What is essential to our success and what can we learn from others who’ve undertaken similar endeavors? Being that these greenhouses have been years in the making, there are definitely some key stakeholders that have invested lots of time and energy into laying the groundwork; they’ll be the first people I approach.  Secondly, the staff (teachers and administrators) at each site that will be overseeing their operation on a daily basis must be involved, as well as the community (parent-advisory committees?). Last, and definitely not least, the demographic most left out of school planning (and probably city/borough/national/etc.) committees; students. These greenhouses are here to benefit them, why shouldn’t they be involved in the process?

But before I can sit down and host that discussion, I need to get my own philosophy in order. For me, I see 4 clear benefits to these greenhouses. They…

  1. improve educational opportunities.

Running a greenhouse is like running a business, except that the product you sell might not exist/grow. It’s challenging and risky, yet rich and rewarding. It encompasses all components of S.T.E.M. education; science, technology, engineering, and math. From water testing to the life cycles of various plants, siphons to production analysis, every subject is represented in a multitude of facets. It is also easy to incorporate all ages along the spectrum of tasks that need to be completed (hands on; something the majority of our schools fail to offer). From seed starting to logo design, packaging, marketing, digital data collection (documentation); there’s something for everyone!

  1. improve the economic situation in our district, as well as state.

95% of the food in our state is imported. That means that of the 2.1 billion dollars Alaskans spent on food last year, $1,900,000,000 was invested into companies outside of our borders. That doesn’t sound like an ideal model to me, especially when we have the capability to grow food right in our backyards. Also, with the Alaska grown food initiative, we can use the money allotted to our school district to purchase our own produce, essentially paying ourselves to grow it! And since we only serve 160 students, we’ll have plenty of excess to sell to our communities and other markets. This helps our district, as well as our state…

  1. improve our health.

Not much to argue here; would you rather feed your child a heavily processed corndog or chicken nugget from animals that were poorly raised (monoculture; pumped full of antibotics) thousands of miles away, vegetables that have traveled even further and were grown and stored using heavy doses of pesticides and preservatives, or feed them locally grown organic produce that they had a hand in cultivating? I don’t think there’s a parent in the world that would struggle with that one…

  1. improve our stakeholders self-reliance, thereby improving their self-confidence (i.e. potential).

Self-confidence has got to be one of the most statistically significant indicators of successful, healthy, and happy human beings. Fear, anxiety, and a feeling of low self-worth are not attributes I knowingly try to instill in students. But being that our schools have went so far to the academic end of the spectrum (the intelligence we almost solely focus on), relying heavy on abstract thinking rather than integrating concrete, contextual skills, these feelings are often felt as students approach graduation. If I don’t go to college, or know what I want to study, what can I do? What skills do I have to offer? The 82% of students who don’t complete a 4 year degree are more likely to get “stuck” in a soul-crushing, passionless job.  Greenhouses are just one way to use “context” to teach standards; killing 2 birds with one stone.  It also teaches them that they do have practical skills that are transferable to their professional (and personal) world.

So, that’s where I’m at. Within a week I’ll be sitting around a table with the fate of our greenhouses resting in our dialog. Lets hope we can be open and disagree (i.e. think harder), be courageous and creative, and do what’s ultimately best for kids.

In the meantime, what are SISD’s future plans? Keep thinking outside the box, of course 🙂 They’re currently constructing a 70’ x 90’ aquaponic greenhouse in Coffman Cove, a site that already has almost 10 times as many fruit trees on campus as students. It is scheduled to be completed by the new year…

* Currently, Alaska Statute 16.40.210 forbids the sale of aquaponicly raised fish for commercial purposes.

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