Farm School: Chicago’s only agricultural high school raises the barn for urban education

(Mehves Konuk)

(Mehves Konuk)

From the road, the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) looks like any other public school in the city, with a large, blocky edifice and a sign extolling the achievements of its sports teams. It’s not until one approaches and notices the farm stand selling fresh produce, baked goods, and candles that the secondary function of the school is apparent. Built in 1985 in southwest Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood, CHSAS operates one of the few remaining farms in the city, supplementing a public school curriculum with special training in agriculture.

Though the school’s principal, Bill Hook, admits that he “would hate to have been arguing for the program back [in 1985],” the first year of Farm Aid and a time when agriculture “had kind of a black eye,” CHSAS has proven to be, by economic as well as academic measures, a substantial success. The school has won a number of awards, including a Business Week Award for Instructional Innovation and the 2006 Emerald Award for Implementation of Postsecondary Educational Programming, and boasts a remarkably low dropout rate and high rate of daily attendance. It also competes in the Chicago Flower and Garden Show on Navy Pier (the only high school to do so) and consistently turns a profit on enterprises ranging from the sale of honey and eggs to that of poinsettias grown in the school’s two greenhouses during the Christmas season. That money is used to fund the farm’s operations, and when possible, the school also invests in technologies with the potential to cut costs (such as a new mower that officials say saved the program $10,000). Explains Scott Nelson, lead agriculture teacher who oversees the workings of CHSAS’s farm, “If we can engage in an enterprise that is both educational and produces some income…a lot of times that goes back into the program.”

The school’s reason for being, however, is not its produce, but the training in agriculture and the jobs related to it that CHSAS provides. “Twenty-five percent of jobs in Illinois are based in agriculture,” Principal Hook notes, and the school’s program leaves students “plenty of time to discuss issues relevant in the industry,” rendering them more likely to eventually land agriculture-based jobs. This month, the school plans to open a new three-hole golf course designed and built by students in the agricultural mechanics section, headed by Robert Bush. The golf course is intended to provide part of what Bush refers to as a “sustainable educational experience, with every student here able to participate in the maintenance of the course for years to come.” Indeed, much of the school’s grounds were planned and developed by CHSAS students, providing training for fields such as landscaping and hydroponics. In Bush’s words, “We do a lot more than birdfeeders.”

The PTA (Mehves Konuk)

The PTA (Mehves Konuk)

The agriculture mechanics pathway is just one of five that CHSAS students can elect to pursue once they have arrived at the school, which draws its nearly six hundred attendees from across the city. Students compete for admission in one of three lotteries: one general, one for students who have had a relative in attendance at CHSAS, and one for students with superior academic records. Admission within the lotteries is, however, random. During their sophomore years, students spend eight weeks each trying classes in the fields of agricultural mechanics, horticulture, food science, agricultural finance, and animal science before filling out a form in June detailing which pathway they’d like to follow. Although horticulture teacher Julie Reynolds notes that “if [a student] has demonstrated an interest in a field early on…we might try to go to bat for them,” assignation to sections is on a first-queued basis, and students who do not get their desired pathway are placed in another one. In their junior and senior years, students then devote two of their eight daily periods to agricultural courses, using the remainder to fulfill city graduation requirements and explore standard academic options.

The school’s dual role is perhaps best exemplified by the divide at the end of its main hallway: a typical high school art room, with uniformed cheerleaders rushing past to get to the autumn sports pep rally, flanked on its left by a hydroponics lab. The lab runs wastewater from several large tanks of tilapia fish down a series of troughs, over which are placed cutouts capable of holding basil, lettuce, and other plants. “Kids run the place year-round,” Nelson says, even as they complete courses in math, science, and other subjects, perhaps moving after a hydroponics section to the room next door for art.

Although CHSAS performs well on traditional academics, with 7.5 percent of the student body taking AP courses and a comfortable majority–at a school with 40 percent low-income students–meeting or exceeding state math and reading standards, Bush explains that the specific hope of the program is that “our students become involved with careers in agriculture.” That goal fuels the school’s golf course construction, the baked goods at its farm stand (cooked by students in the food science pathway, often using honey extracted from the school’s extensive bee colony), and the employment of the school’s large contingent of special education students in taking care of the plants that decorate its hallways. There is some evidence that this approach is working– for instance, Julie Reynolds, the horticulture teacher, was part of the school’s third graduating class. Though she says she had “no knowledge of what agriculture was before coming here, it became something I really enjoyed and wanted to do.”

Though Nelson insists that “not many kids here go out and become farmers or ranchers,” the school does maintain a traditional farm and barn area with animals, along with its more technologically adventurous divisions. Joan White, a veterinarian and chief animal science instructor, presides over an expanding menagerie of two horses, four sheep, two goats, a very large pig, and a cow. Her students spend the second half of a double period learning the details of animal health, reproduction, and nutrition, but the first is devoted to the care of the animals themselves. “My morning class brings the animals out and feeds them,” White explains, as two girls eager to get to the afternoon pep rally struggle past with goats. “My afternoon class cleans the stalls and brings them in.” Detention, Nelson adds, consists of “coming in and shoveling shit on Saturday and Sunday.” This has not deterred a substantial portion of White’s class from declaring an interest in veterinary science as a potential career path.

It’s that kind of interest that the school seeks to encourage and sustain. It is supported in that mission by groups as varied as Mount Greenwood’s business community, the University of Illinois Extension (which has a unit on the school’s grounds), and Cornell University’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, which sponsored a recent seminar in which the school participated entitled “Environment and Sustainable Food Systems.” Indeed, along with profit, sustainability is one of the school’s watchwords. Students use beeswax left over from the harvesting of honey to make candles that are then sold at the school farm stand, and the waste from the animals is used as fuel for crop growth.

Vocational training in the field of agriculture is dependent on meeting the standards of a changing age, one that will most likely include lowered farm subsidies and a greater emphasis on shrewd husbanding of resources. The school is just beginning to track the careers of the many students it has shepherded through its program: it remains to be seen whether it has realized its ambition of fomenting success in one of the largest sectors of America’s economy. Nevertheless, with its achievements in keeping a largely student-run agricultural enterprise viable in an urban environment, it’s hard to deny that the school has made a positive mark on its neighborhood and an impressive start on worthy and critical goals. In a time of rapidly shifting ideas in school reform, it’s far from implausible that the programs at CHSAS could provide a template to help complement or improve urban school systems across the country.