Flash forward to after lunch: students sit around a table and hold a meeting to discuss what prices to charge for fish and produce. They cite prices from their competition that they’ve identified by conducting market research. Eventually, after significant back and forth, they come to a decision by voting.

Not your typical day at school, but for students in R.S.U. #13’s Middle School Alternative Education program it’s all a part of running a business. This year, the highly successful program has been split into two sections: one group continues as the Teel Cove Student Shellfish Co-op managing the oyster hatchery business, and another group has taken on the challenge of developing a start-up aquaponics business. The School of Roots was founded this year by six students in the Alternative Education class, and business has been booming.

Herring Gut Learning Center has been successfully collaborating with the R.S.U. #13 Middle School Alternative Education program for over ten years. The program is aimed at students who have not been successful in traditional classroom environments and are often disillusioned with school. The Alternative Education program, in collaboration with Herring Gut, engages students in a hands-on learning environment and strengthens math, science, research and literacy skills-often without the students actually realizing what they are learning. Students in the aquaponics program need to learn math and science skills in order to successfully take care of their crops and fish and run a successful business. This obligation to ensure the health of living organisms motivates the students to become invested in their educational experience.

Aquaponics is a system of producing fish and vegetables which combines aquaculture (fish farming) techniques and hydroponic (soil-less plant growing) techniques. The aquaculture and hydroponic systems are linked by recirculating water. This setup conserves water, increases efficiency, and minimizes energy use due to the dual use of facilities. In an aquaponics system, the nutrient-rich water that results from raising fish is a source of natural fertilizer for the growing plants. As the plants consume the nutrients, they help to purify the water that the fish live in. At Herring Gut, large round tanks house tilapia, a hardy freshwater food fish. Nutrient-rich water is pumped from the fish room out into the greenhouse, where water flows over roots of lettuce grown in long white gutters using hydroponic techniques

The School of Roots students are responsible for managing the business as well as maintaining the aquaponics systems. The students in the program voted each other into management positions after giving speeches at the beginning of the year. While each student is expected to know all parts of running the aquaponics business, these management positions give the students an opportunity to become an expert in a certain department and take on additional responsibilities.

The School of Roots is currently focusing their greenhouse efforts on producing Bibb lettuce. Bibb lettuce is considered a delicacy among lettuce varieties and is prized by gourmet chefs. It has small, round, loosely formed heads with soft, buttery-textured leaves. Students are also experimenting with growing herbs, such as basil and cilantro, to supplement their lettuce sales. As a first-year business, the School of Roots students have had to work hard to establish local markets for their products and establish relationships with their customers. The students are ecstatic about their sales so far and already there is enthusiastic talk about expanding their reach in the future.

For the opportunity to purchase fresh, locally grown lettuce all winter and support the unique educational experience of these students visit Harborside Market, Tenants Harbor General Store, or Port Clyde General Store where their produce is on sale.

Alexandria Brasili is the Island Institute Fellow at the Herring Gut Learning Ceter in Port Clyde.