Istrouma High School in Baton Rouge is adding aquaponics, a marriage of aquaculture and hydroponics, to its list of electives this fall after a fanfare-filled tryout last year at a nearby feeder school, Brookstown Middle.
Credit for bringing this unusual biological science course to Baton Rouge public schools goes to ExxonMobil electrical engineer Ronnie Morris.
Morris says he became interested in aquaponics after digging a fish pond at his house for his young grandchildren. As he began to research what it took to create a healthy pond, the scientist in him began to light up with educational possibilities.
He spent $6,000 of his own money to buy the equipment needed to bring aquaponics to Brookstown Middle. The school quickly began raising catfish and using the fish waste as fertilizer to grow 21 varieties of lettuce as well as basil. In October, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and ExxonMobil held a well-publicized event to highlight the new program.
Since August, dozens of students at Brookstown Middle School in Baton Rouge have been raising catfish with a plan to use the fish waste as fer…
Since then, Morris has set up a private foundation called WeProduceGrads.org to expand the program to Istrouma High and to improve it at the middle school. He and his wife, Allyson, have pledged $100,000 to support the work of the new nonprofit.
“Its purpose is to use aquaponics as a vehicle to produce graduates from the East Baton Rouge community,” said Morris.
The school system is chipping in.
On Thursday, the School Board agreed to spend $310,000 to rehabilitate an old shop building at the Istrouma High campus at on Winbourne Avenue, as well as to pour the foundation and install utilities for an adjacent commercial greenhouse. The work is being added to an ongoing $4.5 million renovation of the high school’s annex. Both the annex and the aquaponics work are scheduled to be complete by Aug. 9, the first day of the 2018-19 school year. The historic high school, which reopened in 2017 after being closed for three years, has undergone almost $29 million in renovations.
Morris’s foundation is planning to install two aquaponics units at Istrouma as well as an aeroponics unit that is vertical rather than horizontal like the hydroponics unit at Brookstown.
“I can grow a lot more produce in this vertical space,” Morris said.
In the fall, Morris plans to install the greenhouse, or as he’s dubbing it, the Greene House. The name is is honor of Dr. Tom and Cathy Greene. The couple co-own a veterinary clinic in Livonia and he is a former state senator. Years ago, Tom Greene helped Morris land a scholarship that allowed him to study electrical engineering at LSU.
The state-of-the-art Greene House will allow students to grow more than 20,000 heads of lettuce and other leafy green vegetables a year, and where the students will be cultivating up to 1,400 pounds of fish a year, Morris said.
In addition, Istrouma High students will work part-time, after-school jobs at the greenhouse year round. And any profits are to be set aside for college scholarships for Istrouma High graduates willing to major in STEM fields in science, technology, engineering or math.
“If they learn how to run the facility efficiently, they will generate more money, there will be more interest in the program and they will raise more for college,” Morris said. “And they will be investing in themselves.”
A student survey at Brookstown Middle showed growing interest in the sciences after aquaponics was introduced last year. At the beginning of the school year, just 2 percent of the students in the aquaponics program were interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields. By the end of the year, 92 percent were interested.
“Maybe they didn’t understand what STEM was before, but they do now,” said Lauraleigh Eddleman, who teaches aquaponics at Brookstown Middle.
Eddleman said she expects the number of participating Brookstown students next year to double from around 50 to nearly 100.
Morris added to the interest level in May when he announced he would be supporting a $6,000 scholarship for Brookstown Middle students — he’s naming the scholarship after Eddleman, their teacher — if they complete high school and pursue a career in education in a STEM field at LSU.
Andrew Holmes, a science teacher at Istrouma Middle Magnet, has been hired to run the new aquaponics program at Istrouma High. As part of that job, Holmes is leading the creation of a new aquaponics curriculum for the high school. Also, he and Eddleman are planning to visit Montello, Wisconsin, in July to see an aquaponics program in action.
Like many local educators, Istrouma High Principal Reginald Douglas had never heard of aquaponics before Morris came into the picture. But as plans developed to bring the program to his high school, Douglas did his own research, including visiting a school in Chicago that makes use of aquaponics. He came away impressed.
“It was amazing to see what the kids were doing with the aquaponics and the level they were taking it,” he recalled.
While the bulk of the aquaponics students at Istrouma High initially will be new ninth-graders, including a handful who previously learned about aquaponics at Brookstown Middle, Douglas is looking at ways to open it up to students across the high school.
“It’s too valuable to have something like that on campus and just say you can’t be a part of that,” Douglas said.
The high school facilities promise to be more advanced than those in the middle school now. For instance, one of the new new aquaculture units will have a chiller, allowing the high school students to cultivate cold water fish such as rainbow trout, Morris said.
So where will all this student-raised food go?
This past year, Brookstown Middle’s cafeteria accepted the bulk of the student-grown lettuce for use in student meals, which came in handy during the romaine lettuce recall this spring. Nevertheless, the fish and the produce are ultimately meant for off-campus dinner plates.
Tony’s Seafood, a north Baton Rouge institution, has agreed to buy fish from the school and Capitol City Produce is working with the school on bringing its produce to market. Meanwhile, students at the middle school have developed special packaging for their food products.
On June 7, Brookstown Middle students harvested their first batch of 28 catfish, all them fingerlings eight months earlier. Representatives from Tony’s Seafood collected the fish from the school and brought them back to their 5215 Plank Road store. There they filleted, battered and fried them along with catfish they already had in stock. And then, without saying which fish were which, they asked the students to do a taste test.
“They liked ours better,” Eddleman recalled. “It was a different texture, they said. Smoother.”
Some students, though, had became attached to the fish, even giving them names, making it a little difficult to eat them, however tasty they were: “I hope we’re not eating Bubba,” Eddleman recalled one student saying that day.
Darren Pizzolato, a manager with the seafood company, said Tony’s is “very, very interested” in what the schools are doing with aquaponics and happy to help. He said he wishes there were programs like that when he was in school.
“It’s shocking what they can do now,” Pizzolato said. “Much better than what you can learn in a book.”
Terreca Wells Bates, director of special projects with Capitol City Produce, said she’s happy to work with the schools. She warned, though, that there is a limited demand currently in Baton Rouge for hydroponically grown vegetables. She suggested the schools reach out to local restaurants to try to improve demand.
“I think it’s a great opportunity, but on that side they just have to work out the kinks,” Bates said.
Principal Douglas said he loves fish and lettuce, but if he had his druthers, they'd grow one more vegetable.
“I’m a real big fan of broccoli,” he said.