Sowing success: How urban students are preparing for agriculture careers

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(BPT) - Imagine a high school where classrooms connect to a barn with goats, students care for alpacas, and cows graze in the distance. You're probably picturing a rural community, but this is situated in Chicago.

The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences is a magnet high school within the Chicago Public Schools system. Students don't just graduate with a typical high school curriculum. They also leave with technological skills and agricultural knowledge, giving them a major step up in college and beyond.

Despite the urban setting, the school sits on 73 acres of land, with 32 acres filled with livestock, beehives and a market garden. As part of their studies, students tend to the animals, manage crops and take their harvest to the school's farmstand to sell to the community.

"In their last two years of education, students have mini-majors: Animal science, agricultural mechanics and technology, biotechnology in agriculture, agricultural finance and economics, horticulture and landscape design, food science and natural resources and environmental management," said Noelle Coronado, lead agriculture teacher and National FFA Organization chapter adviser. "Everything they do in these ag classes has an instructional portion and a hands-on project that benefit the school, its animals and crops, and the local community."

Connecting the dots

Many of the pathways overlap in ways the students didn't consider before attending the school. For example, the school's alpacas play a key role in the agricultural environment of the school. Kaili Norwood, a senior in the animal science pathway, is responsible for caring for the school's three alpacas and has seen firsthand how the various areas of study are interconnected.

"Right now, some of the students are working to turn the alpacas' stool into fertilizer to use in the market garden's soil, providing great nutrients for the crops," says Norwood. "I'd never thought about how animal science is agriculture before, but now I definitely get to see how it's all tied together."

This isn't the only connection. The agricultural finance students manage many aspects of the farmstand, like selling the student-grown produce. The farmstand connects to the barn, where students sell the products they've created in the hands-on portion of their classes, including soy candles, zucchini bread, goat milk lotion and alpaca wool spun yarn. These experiences have opened students' eyes to the wider world of farming.

"We're getting to see what problems farmers face and where the money they spend on their farm goes, including crop protection and general management of their farms," says Zachary Gonzalez-Murillo, agricultural finance and economics pathway student.

A lasting impact

The students' studies and projects don't just benefit their local community at present. The school's staff believes students will continue to apply their knowledge after graduation in higher education programs and agricultural careers.

"We're grooming the next generation of farmers," says Brittney Kee, horticulture science teacher. "We have budding agronomists, soil scientists, greenhouse producers and urban farmers."

The lasting impact of the high school is evident in alumni's contributions. A former student donated the school's most recent addition to its alpaca family, and many teachers remain in contact with former students working in the industry. Also, seven of the 10 agriculture department staff are alumni. They wanted to give back to a place that was so formative in their youth.

"My life-long mentor still works at the school and is a huge reason for my career change that led me back here as an educator," says Coronado. "I don't think I would ever want to leave this position. I love watching students have these light bulb moments about how much agriculture plays a key role in their day-to-day lives."

Moving forward

Schools like this one help students prepare for careers in agriculture, providing them with networking and internship opportunities that many high school students typically don't receive.

All students are members of their FFA chapter, attend a two-week summer education program after sophomore year and can apply for a paid summer internship before their junior and senior years. When applying for college-level internships or an entry-level position at a company like Syngenta, these activities help them stand out from their competition.

That said, not all students who attend the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences pursue careers in agriculture. However, all leave understanding agriculture's importance and how they can be better stewards of the land, their food and the industry that keeps the world moving. They also bring an urban voice to a traditionally rural field, offering new perspectives and ideas to the industry.

To learn more about urban agricultural education and the wider ag community, visit SyngentaThrive.com.