When Ben Shuldiner started the High School for Public Service in 2003, he had a heinous track record to fix. The Crown Heights high school was once part of Wingate High, where Marty Markowitz graduated, and where the graduation rate was only 23% in 2000. To fix its failing marks, the city transformed Wingate into four smaller schools, and now Shuldiner’s students are flourishing. His school had a graduation rate of 97% last year, and U.S. News and World Report has ranked it among the country’s top schools two years in a row.
The principal’s secret is simple. “When kids start to feel needed and feel like they’re doing important and good work, they start to really care about themselves,” says Shuldiner. Every student must contribute at least 200 hours of community service, be it walking dogs for BARC animal shelter, working in nursing homes, planting trees, tutoring, or volunteering in soup kitchens. But Shuldiner always wanted to add farming to the kids’ repertoire of public works, so he reached out to Stacey Murphy of BK Farmyards in October. He had an acre of land, she had experience turning Brooklynites’ backyards into crops.
The very next day that they met, she applied for a grant and was awarded it by December. It helped cover some material costs, but that’s all it did. “The biggest cost and the most important cost is the farmer–without the farmer you have a dead site.” So before Christmas she posted her project on Kickstarter, which has so far raised $10,771 to go toward the salary for farmer Bee Ayer, who’s managed the youth programs at Wyckoff Farm in Brooklyn and Phipps in the Bronx. Murphy, meanwhile, will begin teaching at the school in the spring, starting with courses on health and nutrition, like how to cook straight from the garden, and by the fall, science classes on best practices in organic farming, species bio-diversity, pest management, water conservation, composting, and soil health.
The students, meanwhile, will also get hands-on experience working the farm, and will gain entrepreneurial skills by selling CSA shares to the community, beginning with 20 families this year, who will receive the farm’s fresh veggies for 16 weeks. Murphy also plans to throw a Kingston Ave. block party and harvest festivals, and eventually, add goats and chickens to the farm.
But before this venture can start paying for itself, the Youth Farm still needs $7,000 for materials, which Murphy is still raising during her remaining 29 hours on Kickstarter. Pledge $11, and you’ll get tickets to an upcoming movie night on March 25 featuring short films on the new farming movement. Pledge $19, and you’ll get to drink beet martinis and limoncello sours infused by Sister Liquers at the screening. Or just pledge any amount, and feel good that your dollars will help put affordable produce on people’s tables, and teach a new generation of farmers.
While Murphy focuses on fund raising and a new, techy initiative called FarmShare (more on that soon!), her original project, BK Farmyards, “is taking a bit of a backseat.” But she is always seeking new plots of land and spare hands, so email her to pitch in.
Sent by Nicole. Photos courtesy of BK Farmyards.