Students Farming in the Heart of the City

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Who would have predicted that a public high school with a curriculum focused on agriculture, located in one of the biggest cities in America, would become so popular with kids that a lottery system is necessary to choose 150 lucky students from among 3,000 applicants each year?

But’s that is exactly the situation today at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Services (CHSAS). The school began in 1985 on the site of the last operating farm within Chicago’s city limits, 78 acres in all. There are 600 students in grades 9-12, and enrollment will increase to 720 over the next three years. In addition to its growing popularity with high school students, the school attracts tour groups from all around the U.S., including the rural leaders programs that are offered by most states. It is a unique program for our times and people are curious about the school’s structure and success.

Recently, I was fortunate to visit this fascinating magnet school in southwestern Chicago. It offers everything you would expect at a public school: academic courses required for graduation, sports, special education classes, a diverse student population, etc. A key difference, to which the sheer number of applications attests, these kids want to be here.

Each student in grades 9 and 10 is introduced to a number of career pathways offered: horticulture science, animal science, agricultural mechanics, agricultural finance, and food science. By their junior year, each student chooses one pathway for their remaining two years. The school includes greenhouses (traditional and hydroponic), kitchens, labs, barns, cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, irrigated fields, an indoor swimming pool, aquaculture tanks filled with tilapia, and much, much more.

Did I mention that every student is a member of FFA (Future Farmers of America)?

On a tour of the facility, we met with both students and their teachers and heard from the students how their Ag-focused education will help them in their careers. One young man plans to study law and advance policies that impact agriculture. One young woman studying nutrition through the food sciences pathway said she intends to use her knowledge to become a better physician. Each student is helped to understand how the things they are learning today can be applied to their career of choice, whether they plan to be directly involved with agriculture or not. The focus on career guidance and counseling was evident.

Not all students were thrilled to come to the school at first. We heard from one student who applied because his parents made him do it. Another came there as part of a family tradition – all of her older siblings attended CHSAS. However, both students overcame their initial reluctance once they began attending classes.

Lucille Shaw is principal consultant at the school and has been there most of the years the school has been in operation. A short time with her and I understood the success of the school: a thoroughly dedicated staff, passionate about helping young people be the best at whatever they chose to do for a career.

And talk about dedicated staff! During a huge blizzard a couple of years ago, one of the top administrators slept at the school to make sure the animals would be all right if the power went out. How many administrators would do that?

Minnesota does have an agricultural charter school in Vadnais Heights, MN serving 198 students. Historically, we did have agricultural schools around the state including one in Morris that started in 1910 and operated for more than 50 years with more than 7,000 students over those years. It closed in the early 1960s and the University of Minnesota Morris was established.

I left the Chicago High School for Agricultural Services (CHSAS) with this question in mind: How does an institution like this exist and prosper in urban Chicago in today’s educational environment and we have nothing like it in agricultural areas here in Minnesota? If we are concerned about the problem of not enough young people entering agricultural fields, perhaps it is because they are not learning enough about it and how it impacts everyone's life.

Nancy Straw, a member of the AGree Advisory Committee, is President of West Central Initiative, a regional community foundation that promotes economic development, community development and philanthropy in west central Minnesota.