By Joanie Stiers
Ciana McMillian helped design and create a three-hole golf course as part of a multiyear, horticulture experience project at her high school.
That’s not what the recent graduate expected from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, a school she originally stereotyped as a place that taught kids how to farm. She left understanding the myriad opportunities in the agriculture industry.
“People need to realize just what I learned: Agriculture is much more than farming,” says McMillian, who graduated in 2011 with an agricultural endorsement on her diploma. “It’s an important concept that needs to be learned in every school.”
Like most schools, students at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences learn general subjects and can join the debate league or basketball team. Unlike its counterparts, the nationally recognized, innovative curriculum at this enrollment-capped magnet school enhances the traditional high school experience with real life agricultural applications and a strong emphasis on FFA and leadership. Students are chosen by lottery for the year-round school, which uses agriculture education at its core and industry-trained educators, such as veterinarians, food scientists and agribusiness professionals, to teach some of its courses. This approach, teamed with a campus that includes a nearly 50-acre working farm, a greenhouse, atrium, food-science lab and other amenities, provides students with a unique education in agriculture from within the city limits.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in an urban or rural environment. Ag impacts pretty much everything we do on a daily basis,” says Will Collins, a teacher and alumnus of the school. “I love the fact that our school is literally introducing students to a new concept that will impact them for the rest of their lives.”
Students choose from the high school’s five career pathways, which are Animal Science, Agricultural Mechanics and Technology, Agricultural Finance, Horticulture and Food Science. They have an eight-week course in each pathway during their sophomore year and enter one by their junior year.
These pathways are academic and career focused. After high school, some students continue agricultural studies or careers, such as recent graduate Joseph Moseley III, who is studying agricultural economics in college this fall. He has great interest in a career that works with mergers and acquisitions. Other students choose to use their intensive agricultural studies at the high school as a reference in non-ag careers. McMillian intends to use knowledge gained in her agricultural finance pathway to open her own physical therapy business after college.
For two years, students take two hours of course work a day related to their pathway, says Scott Nelson, a teacher, campus farm manager and agronomist. That learning is intense and hands-on.
“You can explain it on a chalkboard or video, but seeing it done firsthand is pretty amazing,” Nelson says.
In fact, students are required to spend two summers on campus. Students run the school’s farm stand, which involves growing and marketing produce, such as peppers, squash, watermelon, tomatoes and pumpkins. Those interested in animal science care for the school’s livestock, which includes sheep, goats, horses, beef and dairy cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs, groundhogs and iguanas. Chicago’s flower garden show includes entries from horticulture students. In the food lab, students make value-added products, such as zucchini bread, from campus-grown produce.
These experiences also provide opportunities to meet an FFA requirement to maintain a Supervised Agricultural Experience, or SAE. All of the nearly 600 students in the school are members of the National FFA Organization. The school’s leadership foundation and student government structure is embedded in FFA, a component of the nation’s agricultural education curricula that helps students develop leadership, life skills and career achievements.
“This was not my first choice school. This was actually my mom’s choice for me,” says McMillian, who is studying nutritional science in college this fall. “Now I feel it was the best decision that my mom could have made for me. I had a lot of opportunities and experiences that I wouldn’t have had at other high schools.”
Visit the CHSAS Farm Stand
The farm stand run by Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences students is located at 3857 W. 111th St. in Chicago. For more information, including hours of operation, visit www.chicagoagr.org or call (773) 535-2500.