Going to a Farm High School Doesn't Mean You're Necessarily Going to Be a Farmer

A goat munches while its stall is being cleaned. Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences

The city of Chicago isn't where you'd expect to find a school for agriculturally minded students.

But in the far southwest corner of the city sits the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Established in 1985, the school is located on a plot of land that was known as "the last farm in Chicago." It was owned for years by the Chicago Board of Education, which was leasing it to a couple that ran the farm and even ran a local farm stand. When the couple was set to retire, a group of education leaders decided to establish a high school and thought it only made sense to build an agricultural school where the farm was.

So now, on 75 acres surrounded by residences and community businesses, a park and a busy thoroughfare, the school includes 50 acres of pasture and fields of crops. There are barns that house beef cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys, two alpacas and a dairy cow. Students are responsible for feeding and caring for the animals (even on holidays and weekends, of course) and tending to everything that grows.

The school is a magnet school, meaning students who live anywhere in the Chicago Public Schools district can apply to attend. Each year they get about 3,000 application for 200 open freshmen slots, Assistant Principal Sheila Fowler tells MNN.

All of the school's 720 students must choose one of six agricultural "pathways" when they register: agricultural finance and economics, agricultural mechanics and technology, animal science, food science and technology, horticulture or biotechnology in agriculture. Other than choosing French or Spanish, all of a student's electives throughout high school fall into these agricultural categories.

They might take classes in animal nutrition, growing plants in horticultural and greenhouse settings, food preservation and processing, as well as hands-on skills needed in the industry such as reading blueprints and using various power and hand tools.

Students inspect crops on campus.
Students inspect crops on campus. Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences

The bulk of the students — about 85 percent — continue on to college, says Fowler. Of that group, about a third declare an agricultural major. Of the students who graduate and don't go to college, a few go directly into agricultural careers. For example, one student who followed the horticultural pathway now manages a local greenhouse.

Administrators say this currently is the only school of its kind in the Midwest and has become a model for other programs across the country. Fowler says they've been contacted by many other schools that either want to change their offerings or want to revamp their entire curriculum. The school is currently working closely with Vincent High School in Milwaukee, which is modeling its curriculum after theirs.

Although many students enroll because the school has a great academic reputation, they are soon caught up in the possibility of careers in agronomy, hydroponics or designing landscape plans.

"We expose them to the foundations of agriculture including caring for animals and caring for plants," Fowler says. "The overall goal is to encourage them to pursue careers in the agricultural industry beyond the farm. Whether it's advertising or research and development or trading corn down at the Chicago Board of Trade, it's about careers from when food leaves the farm to when it hits your plate. I don't know if any of them go on to actually become farmers, per se."

Joining the farm team

Student Noa Everet is surrounded by baby chicks.
Student Noa Everet is surrounded by baby chicks. Olney Friends School

About 450 miles away, another school integrates farming as a key part of its curriculum. The Olney Friends School is located on 350 acres near Barnesville, Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Established in 1837 to serve the children of Quaker families, the school now attracts students from across the U.S. and several different countries, including Afghanistan, China and Costa Rica.

Farming has always been an integral part of the school's day-to-day learning and the school's 50 students are involved in various degrees. In 2015, Olney's campus was certified organic by the USDA. According to its website, Olney is one of fewer than 10 high school campuses in the country to receive this credential.

Much of the produce and livestock consumed on campus is produced on the farm under the care of students. The school strives to be as self-sufficient as possible, raising beef, chicken, potatoes, onions and garlic annually, as well as a rotation of other vegetables, fruits and field crops such as tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, beans and sweet corn, Phineas Gosselink, assistant farmer and math and humanities teacher, tells MNN.

"Like most Friends schools, students are required to contribute their labor to the community. They clean the main buildings, the classrooms, and the dorms. They participate in food prep and do most of the cafeteria cleanup, dish washing and pot washing," Gosselink says.

A few students are also responsible for feeding, watering and giving bedding material to the goats and chickens a few times a day, as well as collecting and washing the eggs.

"Over the course of the year, every student (and most faculty members) have at least one three-week shift. I feel like this exposure to work, the animals themselves, and poop and messiness and occasional death, and caring for what we'll eat, is some of the most important learning experiences the school provides," Gosselink says.

In addition, Olney students who are particularly interested in raising livestock or crops can choose an option called "farm team" in lieu of a sports requirement for graduation. They can follow one of two paths: animal farm team or vegetable farm team. These students take care of larger, more intensive projects than the daily crews.

Students on the animal farm team help manage the schools cattle, goats, pigs and cage-free chickens. There are the students who are trained as goat midwives who are in the barn when goats give birth, as in the video above. Those on the vegetable farm team are involved in preparation, planting and harvesting of the myriad crops served at the school's meals. Recently, students worked together to produce sorghum.

Farming and agriculture is also part of the curriculum throughout the school. In biology class, students might listen to a lecture about artificial insemination or will visit the greenhouse to pollinate lemon trees, according to Yes Magazine. In art class, students work on remodeling designs for the greenhouse. Students and staff participate in Quaker meetings twice a week, where they mostly sit in silence unless someone wants to share a thought or message, Gosselink says.

"But we also dedicate some meetings to a specific idea or activity, like sharing music or taking a walk through the woods. Every spring we have one meeting dedicated to goat kids: The entire school wanders down to the barn where we sit quietly (or as quietly as possible) on the hay with little baby goats in our laps. The new little souls are pretty powerful ambassadors from God or whatever's out there."

Sumeya Kasse joins students in harvesting potatoes at Olney Friends School.
Sumeya Kasse joins students in harvesting potatoes at . Olney Friends School

One hundred percent of Olney graduates go on to college, so the purpose of the hands-on agriculture experience isn't to launch students into farming careers.

"Because most of our students will go on to so-called professional careers, it's important we instill in them a respect for the people who continue to work the land and produce our food," Gosselink says.

"It's my understanding our traditional objectives have always been about respect and sustainability and knowing where our food comes from. But personally I feel it may go a little deeper still."

"It's about the wider concept of stewardship: not just how we interact with the land or animals, but how we treat each other. It is part and parcel with why we emphasize environmental science in our academic program, and about how we try to live in community ... In my opinion, the farm and student activity on it cannot be separated from these wider school principles. It's all part of trying to form caring, responsible, proactive, informed adults. After all, the complexity of sustainable systems includes us."