Chicago high school turning learners into leaders

Near the top in the academic rankings in Chicago, the Chicago High School of Agricultural Sciences is transforming city kids into graduates eager for careers in agriculture

Rarely does someone wish they could go back to high school, but that was certainly the feeling I had when I toured a school in Chicago last June during my Nuffield Scholarship.

The institution is about 30 km south of downtown Chicago, and in many ways, it is a standard high school. It has lockers, classrooms, and a gymnasium.

However, there is something unique about CHSAS. Every single student here is studying agriculture.

CHSAS stands for Chicago High School of Agricultural Sciences. The school sits on 72 acres, 39 of which are a working farm. There is also a greenhouse, an aquaponics lab, livestock barn, bee hives, and a fully equipped food science lab.

As I travelled through the halls, the pride and enthusiasm were palpable. Sheila Fowler, the school’s vice-principal, notices that unique feeling at CHSAS too. “Our relatively small student population allows CHSAS to maintain a family-like atmosphere which is characteristic of many agricultural organizations throughout America,” she says.

And it’s true. There is a family-like quality to the interactions here. The two young women who led me around barely stopped talking, eagerly telling me about their experiences as students, as we moved from one area of the school to the next.

Something for every interest

Like most high schools, student course selections are fairly generalized for students entering their first year. However, by Grade 11 each student at CHSAS selects a career pathway to focus on as they complete their high school journey.

Pathway options include agricultural education, agricultural finance and economics, agricultural mechanics and technology, animal science, food science and technology, and horticulture.

This school year a biotechnology pathway was also added to round out the lineup of options.

For my first stop, my tour guides led me to the school greenhouse, home of the horticulture pathway. The greenhouse was beyond steamy on that summery day, so we moved our conversation to the classroom where the walls were covered with landscape plans. At the back of the room was a business centre, complete with computers and stacks of textbooks on horticulture and plant propagation.

I heard from the horticulture students that while they do a lot of planning and paperwork, the learning is definitely focused on hands-on experience. Within each of the pathways, students develop theoretical knowledge in classroom instruction and hands-on technical skills through practical projects. According to Fowler, the agriculture classes “are designed to give students ownership of projects. Students have a vested interest in making sure their work is successful.”

Each spring the horticulture pathway works together with the ag mechanics pathway to put together a display for the Flower and Garden Show held in downtown Chicago. It is an opportunity for students to put their skills to the test, competing against other schools and also established businesses. They also plan, advertise, and facilitate a plant sale each year for the local community.

Building business skills

Business skills are top of mind in all of the pathways. Every student at CHSAS is a member of Future Farmers of America (FFA), which requires them to complete, among other activities, a Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE). An SAE can take many different forms, such as entrepreneurial ventures, internships, or even school-based enterprises.

At CHSAS, one of the school-based enterprises is a farm stand that sells produce grown on the school grounds. It is managed by the ag finance and economics pathway, whose students were sitting in front of computers, working on their final projects as I entered their classroom.

I asked this group if they enjoy attending such a unique high school. A young man piped up and said “it’s great. You get to actually do stuff, not just read about it.” He explained that one of their first projects that year had been on investments. They chose real stocks and competed against each other to see which selections were most profitable.

“So what kind of stocks did you choose?” I asked. They responded that a portion of their selections had to be agri-business stocks, and they had been surprised by the number of agricultural options.

“I never knew that there were so many companies that sell tractors!” exclaimed one student.

That lack of familiarity with agriculture businesses is probably because these students don’t come from a farming or agriculture background. Every student here lives within the city limits of Chicago.

Challenging stereotypes

The school’s mission statement is ambitious, saying CHSAS “… provides opportunities for diverse students from across the city to study agriculture with the goal of developing marketable skills as well as college level competencies.”

The integration of academic and agricultural programs helps students see beyond old farming stereotypes. There may be a barn, tractors, and crops on campus, but students quickly realize agriculture is more than primary production, and that agriculture is good for our economy, environment, and culture.

Not surprisingly, there are stereotypes about the school. Many people in the city of Chicago refer to CHSAS as “the farm school,” and a few of the students I spoke to were initially apprehensive about attending, based on that description.

Despite a country nickname, CHSAS has a track record of success that attracts students from across the city. In 2016 the school received a 1+ rating, the highest score from the Chicago Public Schools.

Other statistics are impressive too: a four-year graduation rate of 81.1 per cent, college enrollment at 79.8 per cent, and a dropout rate of only 2.1 per cent.

Learners into leaders

In addition to specific agricultural competencies, there is a clear emphasis on developing employability and soft skills, such as communications and teamwork.

“Students know that it’s important to be academically strong, but they also know it’s equally important to be a good worker,” says Fowler, who is also the FFA adviser for the school.

FFA activities are designed to foster leadership skills and personal growth in youth. Competitions, conferences and conventions equip students with essential skills for career success.

Through participation in these youth development activities, the students gain confidence in their abilities and have the chance to interact with leaders in the agricultural field.

In fact, CHSAS prides itself on connecting with the agricultural community. During my visit, a steady stream of students headed to a classroom where interviews for a summer internship at a prominent agri-business were taking place.

It turns out that a pathway to an agriculture career is fairly common. On average, approximately 37 per cent of a CHSAS graduating class declare an ag-related major as they enter college. Those who move on to jobs within the agri-food sector often come back to the school to speak to students about their career and offer guidance and advice on entering the workforce.

The success of CHSAS highlights the value of emphasizing experiential learning and soft skills. Much can be learned from the integration of agriculture, education, and a strong youth development system like FFA.

With the pervasive labour shortage facing the agri-food sector, wouldn’t it be great to see 37 per cent of all graduating high school classes choosing agriculture pathways?

Whether or not the road leads to agriculture for individual students, the most important thing is that their agricultural training helps them leave high school with competence and confidence. Fowler knows that her graduates are ready to meet the world head on. “Students have the skills necessary to thrive,” she tells me. “They can conduct themselves as young professionals.”

For more information on CHSAS visit: www.chicagoagr.org/.

This article first appeared as ‘Check this Chicago school’ in the March 14, 2017 issue of Country Guide.

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