As we drove toward the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, I was not sure what to expect of our visit. My brief online research stated we would be visiting the last working farm in Chicago which would have been reason enough to make the trip, but this was also a functioning high school. Upon arriving at our destination, we found the visitor parking and walked toward the school entrance. With the exception of the Farm Stand store out front, the main building looked like many other high schools you might find around the country. As the old adage goes, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” We would soon find out that there was much more to this school. Once inside the administrative office, we were met by the school’s Principal, William (Bill) Field, and Sheila Fowler, Master Teacher FFA. Both of them greeted us with welcoming smiles and handshakes. We sat down in a small conference room and Bill provided us with an overview of the school. The school was located on 788 acres that was an operating farm as far back as the 1870s. Chicago Public Schools had secured a 100 year lease for the property to operate the school in 1985. The school operates like a business. Students under the guidance of their instructors raise livestock, plant and harvest crops, pick apples from their orchard, grow poinsettias for the holidays, and prepare foods for sale. Crops grown onsite include sweet corn, squash, pumpkins, apples and hay. The students raise cattle, goats, horses, pigs, and Tilapia fish. Additionally, the students operate a bee farm and process honey. Later on our tour, we learned the campus also includes an assortment of cats and dogs to the delight of the students and staff.
I asked Bill to tell us some facts associated with his students. The school selects students using a random lottery system whereby 180 students are selected each year from over 3,000 applicants representing 60 CPS schools. The total student population was presently 720 students with 65% minority and 20% disability participation. Bill went on to share with us that the graduation rate at his school was 92% with 85% of the graduates going on to college. He stated that 35% of the students heading to college would be studying agriculture. I noticed a poster on the conference room wall for a college open house with the names of universities located across the nation with strong agricultural programs. I also noted that my alma mater, Texas A&M University, was not on the poster. This was an oversight my school would need to fix in the future. The school supports grades 9-12 and has eight (8) agriculture pathways. During their sophomore year, students experience each pathway for 30 days in order to expose them to the various programs the school offers. At the end of the rotations, the students pick their top two choices for their desired pathways. Many people would probably be surprised to learn that the school provides a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). We would learn more about this as we toured the classrooms. At this point, Bill had two of his students enter the conference room to serve as our tour guides. The young men, Eddie and John, greeted us with smiles and solid handshakes.
We started our tour with Ag Mechanics where we were introduced to Mr. Nelson. His students were busy working in teams to design boats for an annual competition. Each student team received $100 to design, procure materials and build a boat that would support a student in a boat race conducted in the school swimming pool. As we would learn throughout our tour, classes are conducted using project based learning whereby the students learn teamwork, written and oral communication, technical skills and the underlining STEM concepts. The boat designs we observed ranged from using plastic garbage cans to wood and Styrofoam with the mainstay of all engineers-copious amounts of duct tape. The student designs were adventurous and in some cases a bit crazy looking, but the work was organized using solid project management practices. In addition to learning boat design and building, students in this pathway also study electrical, plumbing and drywall fundamentals. In fact, several of the external structures we observed on the farm were designed and built by students.
Our next stop was Ag Economics where students learn personal finance, entrepreneurship, farm sales, marketing, advertising, Ag economics, and business plan development. Once again the students are organized into teams and learn through projects. Additionally, each student builds a personal portfolio of their work as a record of their accomplishments and earned credentials. Students in this pathway learn real world business experience by managing the school Farm Stand and the floral greenhouse. As we continued our school tour, we saw student projects on aquaponics (very cool-growing plants to feed the fish using a vertical hydroponics design), horticulture, culinary arts, food processing, landscaping, greenhouse management, livestock management (students were monitoring the birth of baby goats as we passed through one of the livestock stables) and environmental conservation. In each classroom, the students described their team’s work and proudly showed us their projects. As you might imagine, the school has a strong FFA component and the students actively participate in their chapter events. Moreover, the school maintains active relationships with several major universities who seek out their graduates.
It was amazing how fast our allotted time passed. Knowing our student tour guides needed to get back to class, we said our goodbyes and thanked our gracious hosts Bill and Sheila. As we drove back to the center of town, we reflected on our observations. Two items clearly stand out at this school, the dedication of the instructors and staff to engage their students in programs of studying using real-world business projects and of course the character and professionalism of the students we observed in each classroom. Now I know some people may question the utility of an Ag Science High School in the 21st century, but those people have not visited a modern large working farm. To be successful in agriculture today, the people running the business must have a solid foundation in biology, chemistry, physics, math, engineering, mathematics, construction science and information technology. These are not your grandfather’s farms. In fact, many farmers are now using drones with GPS positioning and remote sensor telemetry to monitor crop growth, allocation of fertilizer, water and pesticides, as well as manage livestock. Computers and information networks are now as common on a farm as a pickup truck or tractor. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to visit a working farm in of all places the city of Chicago no less. The students in the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences are not only completing their graduation requirements, they are learning employability skills that will better prepare them for college or their chosen career paths. The city of Chicago should take great pride in this remarkable institution for its role in preparing their children for the future.