Cultivating Healthy Bodies, Imagination, and Down to Earth Know-How

November 3, 2018

By Katherine Keller

Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts? Agriculture Program grows and grows

Kegan Murray, Anaiyahliz Coriano Torres, Erin Dentice, Mary Thaw, and Colton Medina. Photo Tom Grimm

At one time in Wisconsin, most children were aware, many from direct experience, that vegetables grow in soil and need sunlight and water and nutrients to thrive. They helped their parents sow seeds in farm fields and in backyards, just as they helped the family harvest and preserve the bounty. 

Today in Wisconsin and beyond, data farms proliferate as family farms disappear. Children have lost touch with the elemental processes that produce the fruit and vegetables and grains on their plates.

There is a growing movement in the United States to reconnect school children with food. Slow Food’s school garden curriculum aims to teach children “where food comes from, what real food tastes like, how to grow and harvest it in an environmentally-friendly way, and how food connects to culture and community.” 

Similar programs have emerged in the past 20 years, among those UNESCO’s Garden Based Learning, the nonprofit National Farm to School Network, and Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project.

The agriculture program at Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts began modestly with the installation of raised garden beds in front of the school, 2969 S. Howell Avenue. Photo Katherine Keller

In Bay View, an exemplary agriculture program for students in K4 through Grade 8 has taken root at Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts, instituted and led by dynamo Erin Dentice, the program’s coordinator.

When Dover Street School and Tippecanoe School for the Arts and Humanities formally merged in 2013, Dentice installed 4 x 8 foot raised bed garden plots in the front lawn of the school, 2969 S. Howell Ave. Her motive was to thank the teachers for their hard work and to help make neighbors aware of the new school. Parkside is located in the former Gustav A. Fritsche Middle School building.

The school garden plots served as the seeds for Parkside’s full-fledged agriculture program. From kindergarten to eighth grade, students participate in different aspects of the program. Those range from learning about growing food to cooking and preserving to studying and preserving it to studying the food and culinary traditions of fellow students.


The program began when one of Park­side’s parents, who is affiliated with the Medical College of Wisconsin, approached Dentice and Parkside administrators with a proposal to form a partnership with MCW for a study about the effect of nutrition education and its effect on students — specifically how it affects behavior, self-efficacy, confidence, and body mass index. 

Dentice and Parkside were on board. To gather information for grants, she would write to fund the program, Dentice and MCW held three community listening sessions where they asked parents, if we provided a service for families, what could we do to make the biggest impact?

Dentice’s vision was to create a program that would educate the whole child. For her it was vital that it would include nutrition education, which is often missing in the curriculum. “The thing that we heard the most,” Dentice said, “was the family buy-in piece, the family having a vested interest in it — bringing parents in so they were also learning what the children were learning so they could take it into the home. We heard that theme a lot. That was resounding.

“You can teach kids about nutrition in school and to cook tasty things, but if their choices are limited at home, it’s hard for the children to practice and sustain what they’re learning”.

Erin Dentice, who is the ag program coordinator at Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts, said she had a lot to learn about growing vegetables in a hoop house. Keeping squash vines within the house confines was a challenge. Photo Erin Dentice

The garden component of the proposed program received a boost when Erick Shambarger, the City of Milwaukee’s Director of Environmental Sustainability, told her about hoop houses that were available. 

Shambarger, who attended the listening sessions, told Dentice that there were large hoop houses on the Garden District community garden grounds at Sixth and Norwich streets. The abandoned hoop houses were originally constructed and used by Will Allen and Growing Power. 

Dentice was referred to Simon Landscape Company, who owns the land beneath the hoop houses. Bryan Simon, whose company is located near the Garden District gardens, was instrumental in establishing and developing community gardens, working closely with Ald. Terry Witkowski. 

She inspected the site and hoop houses with Shambarger and Simon, thought they would enhance her program, and wrote a proposal outlining how Parkside could grow produce in the hoop houses and use it in the culinary arts program. Simon was persuaded and Dentice selected two of the 30 x 70 feet houses.

“When we saw them, the hoop houses were falling apart. The plastic was ripping off and they needed some work,” Dentice said. The community pitched in to renovate them.

Bay View High School donated plywood, hardware, shovels, rakes, and wheelbarrows.

Families helped make repairs. Bay View High School students, through a workforce development program, also worked at the hoop houses. Some of the older students who spoke the same language as younger Parkside students with rudimentary English, volunteered as translators.

Dentice, who worked as a project manager in the mutual funds industry and proprietor of an in-home daycare center before Parkside, ramped up skills she’d need for the program by drawing on others’ expertise.

“I called the farmer that runs our family’s CSA and asked him about growing in hoop houses. He invited me to come out to the farm and take a look at their hoop houses. I learned all about what I would need to repair and properly reinforce ours,” she said. “I am so grateful for partners like Bryan Simon, and April Yuds and Tim Huth of LotFotL, for their support and expert guidance. This is what makes community projects successful!”

Parkside’s Compost Team members are Kayla Arnold, Egypt Isom, Janassi Arce Jones, Kylie Moore, Lucy Peters, and Ella Williams. The poster above is in the lunchroom where compost is collected, placed in an outdoor cart, and picked up by Compost Crusaders. Photo Erin Dentice

Jesse Blom, who worked for Sweet Water Organics, taught her how to operate and maintain the aquaponics system that is one of the features of her classroom/kitchen/lab. 

“My sons are the inspiration behind why I do what I do,” she said. Dentice and her husband Anthony have two sons, Sal and Sonny (Salvatore and Santino), who are 10 and 12. 

Dentice developed an interest in gardening and farming when her children were born. She wanted to give them healthy organic food. Likewise, when she opened her childcare center, she wanted to provide the same for her clients. She taught herself through research and practice.

Dentice said she had a lot to learn about gardening in hoop houses where conditions are dramatically than growing in the open. “Over the summer it gets very hot so there were things that just went bananas, like the tomatoes, they really liked it. And we had lots of squash. I underestimated how much space they’d need. It was like Little Shop of Horrors!” she laughed. “It definitely exceeded expectations in terms of production.” 

She tried to train the squash vines to stay within the confines of the hoop houses. “But when I came back, they’d be growing out the ends and all over! I’ll do a little bit more with giving them things to climb up next year,” she said.

Dentice’s decisions about what to plant in the hoop houses were based on the food traditions of Parkside’s families, who have roots in more than 25 different nations. The families submitted recipes that she used to make choices about what to grow. “We tried basically everything,” she said.

She and her students grew corn, squash, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, herbs, tomatillos, peppers, squash, zucchini, and cucumbers.

Water is provided from a rainwater harvesting system adjacent to the hoop houses. Dentice installed a pump to move the water from the rainwater cistern to the hoop houses, funded by a South Side Soup grant that also paid for some of the plastic that was required to restore the structures.

Some of the hoop house bounty was preserved in 72 jars of pickles used for students’ lunches and snacks. She also freezes it for use during the school year, enlisting the help of people with home freezers.

An integral component of Dentice’s ag program is teaching children about their own and fellow students’ food ways and food cultures. Students interview each other to learn about the food they eat at home and about different culinary traditions.

Dentice is working with the school’s first graders who are making lists of their favorite healthy foods that they will incorporate in a self-portrait each child creates.

 “My favorite food is mac and cheese!” exclaimed Colton Medina. “I usually don’t just use foods (in a drawing of myself.) This is the first time I’m using food.” He will also use peaches, apples, and oranges. He might use mac and cheese to outline his head and face and the fruits for his eyes and mouth and other facial features.

His buddy Kegan Murray reflected on the preparatory sketch he made for his self-portrait. “I think,” he explained, “I used a big, big tomato for my head. I used a banana for my mouth and I used some grapes for my hair, green! My eyes, I used little, little tomatoes. I put some strawberries in for my cheeks. And I put fruits around in the background. Like, I put in some squash. It’s going to be peach squash.”

Mary Thaw said she was going to draw a cucumber. “And a watermelon,” she said, bursting into laughter. “And carrots, strawberries, and apples.”

Learning about plants is Mary’s favorite part of the ag program. “I like seeing them grow,” she said.

Anaiyahliz Coriano Torres also likes watching plants grow. It was not a bit challenging deciding how to portray herself with fruits and vegetables. “I am going to use an orange, a banana, green grapes, cucumbers, a watermelon, and apples! Easy peasy, lemon squeezy,” she quipped amid a gale of giggles.

At MPS, we greatly value the rich learning environment urban farming can provide. Barriers to fresh, nutritious food for Milwaukee students extend beyond mere access to include a knowledge gap for families and community members regarding how to procure and prepare healthy food. To begin to address this challenge, Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts works with a myriad of community partners — Bay View High School, Garden District, Simon Landscape, local chefs — to form a collaborative effort to address motivation, self-efficacy, nutrition, physical activity, and success for today’s students. —Dr. Keith P. Posley, Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools

Admin and parental buy-in

Parkside parent Aubrie Granata said the ag program has motivated her boys, James Pike, 11, and Benjamin Pike, 7, to be more engaged and to participate more in her backyard garden plots. “Erin’s personality draws kids in and they want to be involved. Kids from all walks of life are drawn in.” she said. “She makes the program available to all children. She has an understanding of kids with special needs and has a huge amount of patience that others may not have.” 

Granata, who said she’s a firm believer that you get out what you put in, volunteers in Dentice’s lab and in the hoop houses, where she planted tomatoes and weeded. “Oh my gosh, I’ve moved a lot of dirt,” she laughed.

Stephanie Calloway and her husband Joshua Calloway enrolled their daughter Skyla at Parkside (K5) because it’s close to their home and it reflects their personal interests. Joshua is an artist, who teaches at MIAD, and Stephanie oversees the gardening program and teaches cooking classes at CORE El Centro.

Math, geometry, and painting skills were combined when Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts students made barn quilt paintings. They are displayed on the fence at the west end of the school’s hoop houses on Sixth Street and Norwich Avenue. Photo Katherine Keller

“I appreciate that the ag program is within the context of an arts program. It feels like a comprehensive program. There’s composting in the lunchroom, an explosion of plants in the hoop houses, and there are cooking classes. And there’s an aquaponics lab where food is growing on site. And there are animals (turtles),” Calloway said.

She attributes the growth and depth of Parkside’s ag program to Dentice’s grant writing and to the school’s administration for its wisdom appointing a dedicated staff person to develop and oversee it. 

Parkside’s principal Lila Hillman is proud of school’s achievement. “I am excited to offer agricultural programming at Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts and feel strongly about the benefits it provides the students at the school. Our students, staff, and families work together to create an environment where children are intellectually challenged in ways appropriate to their individual strengths, needs, and experiences using an arts integrated approach with a community focus,” said Hillman.

“These are all concepts and principles that work cohesively with the values promoted by the programming carried out by Erin Dentice. Her project-based learning opportunities suit many different learning styles. Ensuring all activities have cross curricular applications sets the students up for success in the real world. I am confident in the ability of this program to change lives within the district and also throughout the communities the school serves. We are so proud of our school and its accomplishments.”

MPS Schools With Ag Programs
Alliance School of Milwaukee

Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education
Bradley Technology and Trade
Fernwood Montessori
Byron Kilbourn
MacDowell Montessori
Milwaukee School of Languages
Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts
Casimir Pulaski
Ronald Reagan
South Division High School

Farm to School
(With a minimum of two garden beds and
hydroponic growing system)
Grantosa Drive

Hawley Environmental
Maple Tree
River Trail
Daniel Webster

Bradley Technology and Trade

Brown Street Academy
Hawley Environmental
Milwaukee Parkside School for the Arts 
Note:  The list above may be incomplete, an MPS official said,
who provided this information.

Funding Parkside’s Agriculture Program

The program is funded through fundraising and grants. Program coordinator Erin Dentice’s part-time limited term employee contract is paid the Milwaukee Public Schools. Dentice said equipment, chef fees, ingredients, and program materials are funded by grants and fundraisers.

Anodyne Coffee and Colectivo Coffee, burlap
Baby Mama Botanicals, seedlings
Bay View High School, materials to renovate hoop houses
Bay View Neighborhood Association, aquaponics system, rain barrels, recycling bins
CD Besadny Conservation Fund, conservation grant
Custom Grown Greenhouses, seedlings and plants
Grand Appliance and TV, stove
Home Depot, raised bed materials
Outpost Natural Foods Cooperative, ingredients for culinary classes
PF Chang’s, chef fees and ingredients
Pick ’n Save, ingredients for culinary classes
Simon Landscape Company, hoop houses, soil
Southside Soup, water pump, plastic, wiggle wire
Target, transportation grant
Whole Foods, garden expansion-tiller, seeds, mural materials
Woodman’s, ingredients for culinary classes

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