Bringing the Farm to Schools
While many schools see gardening and agriculture as an extracurricular, there are a small number of schools that build their entire curriculum around it. At agricultural high schools, students receive formal instruction in agriculturally related curriculum. Several of these schools were established decades ago and have kept their agricultural traditions and curriculums alive, but in the past twenty years, there has been a renewed push for urban agriculture high schools.
The first fully funded agricultural departments in public schools began in Virginia in 1908. Soon after that, in 1917, The Smith-Hughes Act made federal involvement more widespread, by providing specific provisions for vocational agriculture programs. The act also caused a shift towards a vocational approach to agriculture education, preparing young people to become farmers. Schools taught not only the technical aspects of farming, but also the business and entrepreneurial skills needed to run a farm. The Smith-Hughes Act required that students participate in “directed or supervised practice in agriculture”. In 1963, changing legislation in Congress meant that agriculture programs had to compete with other vocational schools for funds, diminishing the prevalence of specialized agriculture high schools in the U.S. Over the past 20 years, however, there has been an increased interest in urban agricultural programs. In 1988, the National Research Council published “Understanding Agriculture: New Directions for Education”, which proposed establishing urban magnet school programs that combine the vocational program model with new curricula. In 1995, the National Forum on Agricultural Education in Urban Schools met at Iowa State University with the purpose of generating enthusiasm for the creation of urban agriculture programs. The forum continues to meet every year.
John Bowne High School – New York City
In 1917, the Newtown Aggies, an agriculture school, was annexed to the main high school, the Newtown High School. In 1964, the name was changed to the John Bowne Aggies. The only Department of Education School in New York City with an agriculture department, Bowne continues to operate a large-scale agriculture program. As one of three tracks in the high school, students apply to the agriculture program in 8th grade when they apply to the high school. The school combines academic classes with experiential learning to prepare students for agricultural professions. The schools facilities include a four-acre land lab equipped with a poultry house, a large animal barn, an exotic animal lab, a greenhouse, and orchard, and field crops. The land lab is integrated into every aspect of the curriculum, allowing students to apply their learning on a daily basis. The crops and eggs produced by the agriculture classes are sold at a student-run farm stand in the summer, and at the school store during the school year, providing students with further experience running small businesses. Steve Perry, the assistant principal of Bowne, notes that the agriculture program allows them to serve a population of kids that have an interest in plant and animal science. Students are more committed to the program, he says, because they have a purpose and goal. While the agriculture program does not explicitly teach about environmental sustainability, Perry says that the students are taught ways to farm with the least environmental impact. “We try to teach them that they are students of the land,” he says. “They learn to respect the land that they live and work off of.”
W.B. Saul High School – Philadelphia
The W.B. Saul High School was founded in 1943 as the Wissahickon Farm School. It has changed its name twice since the, but it still has the same agricultural values and curriculum. Its mission to “develop in students an understanding of and appreciation for the career opportunities that are available to them in the many fields of agriculture” is accomplished through experiential learning on their 150 acre campus. The school offers six different tracks: food science, floriculture and greenhouse management, landscape design, large animal science, natural resource management, and small animal science/vet tech. The video below highlights some of their successes.
The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences does not have the same long history as the schools in Philadelphia and New York. Riding on the wave on increased enthusiasm for agricultural education, CHSAS was started in 1985 as a college preparatory agricultural high school, with the goal of developing marketable competencies in students. Students choose a track from one of five options: Animal science, agricultural mechanics, food science, horticulture landscape design, and agricultural finance. Each track provides students with specific skills needed to continue in their field of choice.
These three high schools offer strong examples of schools that provide a rigorous academic education with experiential learning, in order to create a new generation of urban agriculture workers. Students who graduate from these programs are prepared to continue the long-standing American tradition of agriculture, while at the same time, incorporate new and innovative urban farming methods.