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Breaking Barriers, Creating Change

Breaking Barriers, Creating Change

The following blog post was written by Caitlin Barnhart, Urban Farm Manager and Education Facilitator; with Carly Rice, Lead Education Facilitator, on the launch of Spark-Y’s On-The-Job Training Program.

What does empowerment mean?
To Spark-Y’s On-The-Job Training students, it means breaking down social and economic barriers.

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Through a partnership with Summit Academy OIC, and the Skills and Opportunities for Achievement & Responsibility (SOAR) Workforce, Spark-Y was able to offer a brand new program this past semester: A 6-week immersive job training course in which students learn professional development skills and have the opportunity to become a ServSafe Certified Food Manager - an industry-recognized certification that allows them to compete in the workforce at a level above their peers.

This program is vastly different from our traditional programming. It's the first time that completing our course comes with a professional, industry-recognized accreditation. It’s also the first time we’ve limited participation to those who are 18-24 years of age and who have a history with the legal system.

A major goal of this program is to overcome barriers that have held back historically disadvantaged populations and to help close the opportunity gap. We are doing this by:

  • Sending job opportunities to students, teaching youth how to find jobs they are passionate about.

  • Working with students to develop interviewing skills.

  • Helping students create resumes and apply for jobs.

  • Creating a support system that they can rely on.

One story I would like to highlight is that of King Heirs. King is a student at the Minnesota Internship Center (MNIC), a high school for youth that are seeking additional support to help them graduate. MNIC is one of our earlier school partners and the site of our first-ever, in-school program back in 2009. King learned of our On-The-Job Training program through the MNIC and immediately applied. He was the only student of 8 enrolled who showed up for every single class, constantly going above-and-beyond to achieve the goals that he set for himself. Homework was not a part of this training program, but that didn’t stop King from regularly asking us to send him links to practice exams or if he could take home next week’s assignments to finish over the weekend. When it came down to it, King was the only student who took responsibility for getting himself downtown to the exam center at 8am on a Thursday morning. He sat through a mandatory 8 hour training session, and then passed his ServSafe exam with flying colors! During one of the course days we were discussing passion and how it relates to career choice. King expressed his desire to become a millionaire one day and then he said something that will always stick with me: “Someday, when I’m a millionaire, I’m going to donate a bunch of money to Spark-Y.” Sometimes having an impact on one student’s life is truly a success story.

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This program has a huge potential for students like King who are willing to stick it out through to the end, though it certainly wasn’t all daisies all the time. Carley and I quickly learned that a couple of white girls from the burbs weren’t going to make much of an impression on these students. So what did we do? We brought in speakers that had more similarly aligned backgrounds, and could really connect with the students about their experiences. Shout out to Quinten Osgood, Community Outreach Coordinator for Twin Cities RISE!, and to Bob Blake, owner of Solar Bear and organizer for MN Interfaith Power and Light. These two speakers provided relatable stories and encouragement to the students, while adding to the network of professionals and mentors available to them.

This first On-The-Job Training program was most certainly a learning experience that we now have the knowledge to improve. In the future, we plan to integrate this program more closely with our others by: encouraging participation from current or previous Spark-Y students; offering positions in our Summer Internship following the training course; and working with Summit Academy to enroll students into college courses post training program. Whatever the future holds for these students, Spark-Y has their back. And as an organization, we will continue to provide pathways that breakdown socio-economic barriers and create positive change for our youth.

Winter 2018 Program Updates: Tending our Garden

Winter 2018 Program Updates: Tending our Garden

The following blog post was written by Education Director, Cecelia Watkins, on current school programming partnerships and what’s ahead for the second half of the school year:

The 5th graders wait patiently in a circle, eager anticipation painted across their faces. They’ve sat through the introductions and the safety instructions, and they’re ready to get their hands on something. Gabrielle, a Spark-Y Sustainability Educator, numbers them off into five groups and encourages them to hold their group number on their fingers so they won’t forget.

“Group 1 will be with Cece, measuring our lumber. Group 2 will be with Carley, using the chop saw to cut our lumber. Group 3 will be with Andrew to use drills and assemble our system and Group 4 will be with me learning about seeds and aquaponics. Group 5 will be with Sam, also assembling the system. We’ll switch stations every 15 minutes. Okay everyone, go to your station leader!” The circle scatters into five groups, and the room is suddenly transformed from an ordinary classroom into a Spark-Y building zone. Eight hours later, the classroom is equipped with a fully constructed aquaponics system.

The incredible thing about the Community School of Excellence is that this didn’t happen in only one of their 5th grade classrooms: it happened in all of them. All five 5th grade classrooms at CSE now have their own youth-built aquaponics system. Over the course of the school year, this classroom will cycle water through their system, grow food, and connect their work to the broader community. This 3 phase model is where Spark-Y shines: Design/Build, Grow, Connect. There’s no doubt that these CSE students will remember their time with Spark-Y for years to come. In 2018-19, we’re scheduled to build the following brand new, permanent systems with youth:

  • 5 aquaponics systems

  • 10 raised bed gardens

  • 2 vermicomposting systems

  • 1 hoop house

  • 1 grow tent

  • 1 myco-remediation system (spore bank and fruiting chambers)

In the first three months of the school year, we’ve already built 3 aquaponics systems, 7 raised bed gardens, and the grow tent. If we continue cranking out systems at this pace, we could easily double the number of sustainable systems we’ve planned to build this year.

Except for one thing: this year, we don’t want to focus on building as many new systems as possible. Building something new is exciting and honestly, it’s relatively easy to generate funding and resources to support new builds. But what happens to those systems the following year? How about the year after that? And what about the next batch of CSE 5th graders?

The other week I found myself asking a group of students at Prairie View Elementary School if they knew what the word “sustainable” meant. These are especially bright kiddos, and several raised their hands to reply: “It means you can keep it going,” one said. Exactly. What if we were to measure our success not by how many new systems we build each year, but instead by how many we nurture to the point of thriving?

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Prairie View students learn about the system they’re inheriting and plant new seeds.

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This is our third year at Prairie View Elementary, and they are one of several school programs that we call “Systems Partners.” These are schools where we’ve decided to prioritize the health of existing sustainable systems, and empower the regular school day teachers to integrate the systems into their day to day curriculum. The reality is that it doesn’t make sense for Spark-Y staff to be in every classroom every day or every week. Another reality is that Spark-Y has been cranking out sustainable systems for years now: a lot of our school partners already have aquaponics systems, vermicomposting bins, and school gardens. What message can we send about sustainability if we don’t prioritize taking care of the incredible gifts we’ve inherited?

In 2018-19, we’re planning to empower 1,400+ youth in regularly occurring programs and another 500 in one-time events and workshops. The vast majority of these students won’t be building something new; they’ll be improving and expanding on systems that already exist. The students in Edison High School’s EASYpro (Edible Agriculture Schoolyard Professional) class will be re-building a defunct portion of their aquaponics system to allow them to produce microgreens for their school cafeteria. The students in Roosevelt High School’s Urban Farming class expanded their rain garden and the students at Northeast Middle School will be revitalizing the vermicomposting bins that fell into disuse. Spark-Y staff and Columbia Heights students are working closely with the Blooming Heights garden coordinator to re-shingle the garden shed and repair old cold frames.

Above: Roosevelt students add new perennials to the school rain garden, including American highbush cranberry.

In addition to those daily and weekly Spark-Y programs, this year we are supporting five “Systems Partners” schools, including Prairie View Elementary. Ensuring that the seeds we’ve planted across the Twin Cities are growing and healthy makes Spark-Y a true gardener of sustainable systems. It also gives me hope and energy as we embark on entirely new partnerships, including:

  • Leading multiple full day Spark-Y intensive programs through the Columbia Heights Recreation Department during school breaks (piloted this October during MEA days)

  • Facilitating an On the Job Training program for youth aged 18-24 with legal history through a partnership with Summit Academy; empowering these students to gain industry-recognized Food Safety certification and supporting them in obtaining meaningful employment

  • Working with Edison youth in the DCD (Developmental Cognitive Disabilities) program on the school’s sustainable waste stream management through recycling, composting and bioremediation

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Columbia Heights Rec Department student Jacoby and the Hydraulic Arm he built in a 3 day Spark-Y program

This year we’ve decided to invest some time in strengthening Spark-Y’s foundations. In addition to tending existing sustainable systems in 12 schools across the Twin Cities, we’re taking a deep dive into developing and polishing our curriculum and organizational systems. We want to streamline our processes, document best practices and make sure that we do can be replicable. We’re challenging ourselves as a staff team to take the quality of our programming to the next level by integrating restorative practices to our behavior management plan, connecting our curriculum to broader school units, and linking our activities to MN state standards. When the 5th graders at the Community School of Excellence are in the school’s Justice unit, their Spark-Y days will be filled with food justice and watershed protection activities. When they go to take the Science MCA test at the end of the year, they will be equipped with hours of Spark-Y facilitated, hands-on experiments leveraging their in-class aquaponics systems. In the long run, the investments we make in quality and care of our systems--whether they’re meant to produce food, empowered youth, or both--will pay off by allowing us to not only achieve our mission, but keep that impact going.

Northeast Middle School student hangs out at the square foot gardening activity table when he was struggling to follow power tool safety directions during Garden Build Day. Within minutes of beginning this hands-on activity he went from angry to calm and proud of his work.

Northeast Middle School student hangs out at the square foot gardening activity table when he was struggling to follow power tool safety directions during Garden Build Day. Within minutes of beginning this hands-on activity he went from angry to calm and proud of his work.

Spark-Y Impact Report: 2017-18

Spark-Y Impact Report: 2017-18

Youth Empowerment. This is our mission as an organization and also a directive that shapes our organization - from the curriculum we deliver in our school programs and the real-world approach we take in our summer internship program, to the opportunities for community outreach and youth employment we provide through Urban Agriculture Lab. These three branches of our organization work systemically to positively impact Twin Cities youth, providing multiple pathways for empowerment and growth both within and beyond our organization.

Perhaps this is why so many of our Spark-Y youth begin in our school programs, graduate from our summer internship program, and go on to gain employment at Spark-Y or other organizations as a result of their experiences.

As an organization we are always asking ourselves the same question: How do we measure youth empowerment?
Can it be measured by student grades in our school programs?
Or by the dollar value of projects completed in our summer internship?

If you ask one of our Sustainability Educators, they might tell you other stories of empowerment:

  • The transformation of disengaged students who rally to save a classroom fish, complete an assignment for the first time in their classroom history, or join an elective leadership opportunity (our elementary Captains program).

  • The marvel of watching student-led creations come to life, as young people use STEM-based learning and utilize power tools to design, build, and cultivate their own sustainable systems.

  • Youth interns sharing their summer internship successes on stage in front of our Minneapolis Mayor, Jacob Frey - then going on to secure jobs and admittance to higher education programs as a result of their experiences.

As we continue to share these meaningful stories of youth empowerment on our blog, Facebook, and Instagram we also want to share the other side of how we measure youth empowerment, through our Spark-Y Impact Report. This report is designed to help us as an organization measure our successes, focus our future efforts, and paint a broader picture for our supporters (that’s you!) the value of your investment in our organization.

Together, we are empowering more Twin Cities youth than ever before.


2017-2018 IMPACT REPORT

Total Youth Served in 2017/18: 1,926

School Programs:

This branch of Spark-Y provides hands-on education, rooted in sustainability and entrepreneurship to Twin Cities youth in school classrooms, workshops, one-time events, and customized programming.

In 2017/18 Spark-Y provided curriculum for:

  • 13 schools

  • 18 regularly occurring school programs or 2,799 class periods and 1,334 youth regularly served

  • Workshops and one-time events impacting 401 youth and 191 adults

  • Reaching a total of 1,735 youth

Within our school programs, youth engaged in hands-on curriculum that resulted in:

  • 10 permanent in-school aquaponics systems

  • 35 mini-aquaponics systems

  • 4 permanent vermicompost systems

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Did you know?

In 2017-2018 Spark-Y doubled the number of permanent aquaponics systems built in the previous year.

Another marker of impact in 2017-18 was our expanded reach and lasting impact within of our partnerships with Twin Cities Schools:

  • Addition of Edison High School LEAF (Leadership Education Agriculture Future) program - a diploma certification with Spark-Y programming spanning 5 class offerings.

  • Our third year of programming at Roosevelt High School, including our urban farm and EASY Pro (Edible Schoolyard Professional) programs.

  • Our seventh year at School of Environmental Studies.

  • We also celebrated our fifth year at Southside Family Charter.

Fast Fact:
After participating in a Spark-Y school program, 62% of youth reported knowing ways they can live more sustainably.

Spark-Y continued to expand interpersonal partnerships:

  • 2 school interns from a continued partnership with HECUA program (non-profit with a focus on social justice, human rights and sustainability).

  • 2 AmeriCorps members on staff.

Urban Agriculture Lab (UAL)

The second branch of Spark-Y, the Urban Agriculture Lab, provides support to our school programs through sustainable systems research, facilitation of youth classroom builds, and ongoing maintenance to in-classroom systems. The UAL operates in indoor production facility, providing a sustainable revenue model for the organization and a youth job pathway. Lastly, the UAL is home to our DIY Bio Lab, equipping our classrooms with new, innovative science projects and providing workshops and outreach throughout the Twin Cities.

In 2017/18 the Urban Ag Lab:

Reached 167 youth and 175 adults through tours.

  • Impacted 199 youth with hands-on STEM workshops, in a new partnership with Hennepin County Libraries.

  • Provided a work-based learning internship with 3 Edison students, complete with class credits and stipends.

  • Employed 1 youth apprentice.

  • Impacted 23 youth at our second year in attendance as speakers at CONvergence.

  • Hosted 47 volunteers.

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Fast Fact:

Spark-Y moved office headquarters in August of 2018, moving their 1,300 square foot indoor aquaponics system to construct a timber-frame, vertical growing system at their new offices in Northeast Minneapolis.

Additionally, the Urban Ag Lab participated in the following:

  • Hosted a Spring Plant sale, attracting hundreds of visitors.

  • Featured exhibitor at the Minnesota State Fair, Common Table.

  • A stop on the 2018 Farm Tour.

Summer Internship

The third branch of our organization, the Summer Internship Program, a sustainability bootcamp where young people gain real-world experience through hands-on projects with our Twin Cities partners.

In 2018 Spark-Y provided 41 paid internship positions for our youth, completing:

  • Design and build of a two-ton timber frame aquaponics system

  • A rain garden

  • Indoor aquaponics system

  • Garden shed

2018 interns receiving paid stipends, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, in front of a youth-built timber frame aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Open House.

2018 interns receiving paid stipends, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, in front of a youth-built timber frame aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Open House.

Looking ahead:

With a nod to this last year’s accomplishments, we also look forward to focusing our efforts in key areas of growth to create even more impact in the year to come.

This includes:

  • Creating even more ways to measure our impact, including, entrance / exit surveys and methods of qualitative data collection.

  • Expanding our community workshop offerings to build interest and curiosity in new communities.

  • Thinking of new and innovative ways to fund and expand into new school partnerships, including the ten schools on our current wait list.

  • Increasing our employment pathways.

  • Adding professional certifications to our work based learning programs.

We are very excited to share this information with you. We appreciate your continued support of our organization and other Twin Cities organizations that are actively uplifting the lives of youth all around us. We could not do this work without you. We thank all of our volunteers, staff, Board, fiscal contributors, partners, and cheerleaders for your ongoing support.

Let’s keep building towards empowering our youth, so that they can go on to empower their families, schools, and our greater community!


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A Special Thanks:

In the last month we have received in-kind support of our organization from the Joan Brick McHugh memorial. These donations were given to honor her memory, and for that, we are sincerely grateful. We would also like to recognize Spark-Y Founder, Mary Helen Franze, for her ten years of service on our Board of Directors and for choosing Spark-Y to honor her mother's memory.

RUF Squad Seniors Leave Lasting Impression

RUF Squad Seniors Leave Lasting Impression

The following blog post was written by Zachary Bigaouette,
Spark-Y Education Facilitator & Green Corps Member.

Background: Spark-Y Roosevelt High School program serves grades 9 - 12. Students learn about science, agriculture, and more through hands-on curriculum rooted in sustainability. This is one of two Spark-Y schools participating in garden-to-cafeteria programming

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With the school year coming to a close there is a bittersweet aroma in the air as we are forced to say goodbye to the Senior members of the Roosevelt Urban Farming Squad (or RUF Squad for short). Although we are happy to see them graduate and move on to their next chapters in life we are sad to see them leave the farm that they have made their own. However, the senior RUF squad members are not leaving the school without leaving a lasting impression; this year Roosevelt’s campus has truly been transformed by the RUF squad through the various projects and sustainable systems or structures they have built.

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At the start of the 2017-18 school year the RUF squad wasted no time and hit the ground running, immediately going to work on their outdoor farm and greenhouse, harvesting produce in the farm and selling it back to the school to be used in the school lunches through their Garden-to-Cafeteria program. The students in the RUF squad were also simultaneously learning about and taking care of their aquaponics system, truly exemplifying the hands-on learning experience that Spark-Y is all about! Needless to say the students appeared to have their hands pretty full, but it seems as if that wasn’t quite enough for the RUF squad because they continued to look forward and began to strive towards making their school’s campus even more sustainable. The RUF squad then built not one but TWO vermicomposting systems both complete with two vermicomposting bins adding up to a grand total of four bins filled with happy and hungry worms (more fondly known by the students at Roosevelt as red wigglers).

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RUF Squad Seniors care for the

 

tiered vermicompost bins.

Building two vermicomposting systems to help reduce waste from the waste stream at Roosevelt is already a major accomplishment but still the RUF squad pressed onward, pausing only briefly to admire their work.  The list of projects and tasks that the students worked on after this goes on and on, ranging from designing a rain garden to researching vining plants native to Minnesota to cover the turtle sculpture created by artist Christopher Lutter-Gardella (they landed on vitis riparia, more commonly known as frost grapes). The school year seemed to fly by and end, but in a final act of altruism by the seniors of the RUF squad they left behind their farm complete with seedlings for next year’s incoming RUF squad to harvest in the fall, setting them up for another successful school year.

With all of the projects and hard work behind them the RUF squad finally had time to take a breath and reflect on their past school year. Seeing all of the amazing work and effort they put into their farm this year, it was no surprise that they would put the same amount of effort into reflecting on the school year. Here’s just a handful of stunning reviews which would give Roger Ebert a run for his money!

Junior Aidan says: “This year in Urban Farming I enjoyed learning about our aquaponics system. I would like to get my own someday! It’s fun to watch the plants grow and to take care of the fish. There were also far fewer lessons and much more hands-on work than most other classes which is what I really prefer.” 5/5 White Tilapia

Senior Aaron comments on vermicomposting stating: “Vermicompost as an idea is pretty far fetched. The heightened nutrient-rich soil from red wiggler worm castings seems wild at first, but the hands-on experience helped me a lot to see for myself just how it worked. Not to mention the extra details I learned about what to feed and not to feed the worms. Overall, Spark-Y introduced me to this concept and helped me understand it in different ways throughout the school year.” 12/12 Red Wigglers

Junior Angel comments: “I really enjoyed this class because it was very hands-on and went more in-depth into how to plant in and care for our garden. It also provided me with the skills I need and the responsibility of taking care of our garden.” 2 Green thumbs WAY up

Here’s looking forward to next year’s RUF Squad, the bar was set high this year but I have complete faith that they will go above and beyond it.

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