Urban Agrarians

By Kerry A. White — November 01, 1996 11 min read

The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, with its global, high-tech course of study, preps students for careers far beyond traditional corn and cow pursuits.

It’s near dawn, and, like most Illinois farmers on this August morning, Xander and Dove O’Connor--brother and sister--are well into their first chore of the day. But it’s the pounding rhythm of Chicago’s El, not the cacophony of roosters, that fills their ears. Because unlike “real” farmers, their first chore of the day is simply getting to the farm.

Xander and Dove are students at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Each weekday, they ride two elevated trains and a city bus to get from the Lincoln Park home they share with their parents and five other siblings to what has become known as Farmer High, on the southwest edge of the city. The school is one of nine magnet schools in Chicago and one of only two urban schools in the nation devoted to agriculture. (The other is in Philadelphia.)

“Students here don’t come from a traditional farm background,”

Barbara Valerious, principal

Like nearly all of their 450 classmates, Dove and Xander aren’t attending the magnet school because they want to be farmers. Growing up in the city, the two never imagined that planting corn, milking cows, and driving tractors would be part of their life experience. And that’s OK at Farmer High. The agricultural school isn’t intended to be a fast track to farming. Rather, it’s an agriculturally focused prep school, where a tough academic curriculum and hands-on learning prepare urban students--80 percent of whom are black and Hispanic--for the rigors of college and a career in the nation’s agricultural industry.

“Students here don’t come from a traditional farm background,” says principal Barbara Valerious, who has headed the school since 1987. “And that’s fine because they learn early on that agriculture is a lot more than farming.” Agriculture today, she says, is “global, high-tech food, plant, and animal science.” Jobs in farm production--raising crops and animals--represent only a small percentage of agricultural professions.

With more and more rural kids eschewing farm life for more commonplace urban and suburban endeavors, agriculture may seem an unlikely lure for city-smart teens. Yet applications pour into the school each year. Valerious says parents and students are drawn by the school’s small size and safe environment, which look especially good when the only other option may be one of the city’s troubled and overcrowded schools. But Farmer High’s main attraction is its academic and vocational focus--and the prospect of college and a good job later on.

David Chicoine, dean of agricultural, consumer, and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recruits heavily from the school and says job opportunities in agricultural fields--especially for black and Hispanic professionals--abound. “There’s no farm population left, and we’re getting fewer and fewer farm students in our program,” he says. “Consequently, we’re having a hard time supplying students for all the jobs available.”

Last year, more than 1,000 students applied for the school’s 140 freshman slots.

The popularity of the school suggests that a more aggressive approach to agricultural education at the secondary level could help reverse this trend. Last year, more than 1,000 students applied for the school’s 140 freshman slots. The applicants are not screened for academic ability. Instead, like at many of Chicago’s magnet schools, admission is based on a lottery that considers racial and ethnic background and an interview that gauges interest.

Though students are not selected on the basis of past academic work, they shine in the classroom once enrolled. In 1995, the school had a 91 percent graduation rate, compared with 61 percent for other high schools in the city. And 72 percent of the school’s graduates went on to four-year colleges, compared with 30 percent for the district. College-bound seniors last year won a total of $1.9 million in scholarships.

Tiffany Roberson, who graduated near the top of her 1996 class, was accepted at Delaware State University in Dover on a full four-year scholarship to study environmental science. “I loved it here,” Roberson says during a visit to the high school to show some of her former teachers an award she has received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “In grade school, I really got into the environment and recycling, and my science teacher told me about the school. I knew then that this is where I wanted to go.”

College recruiters visit the school in droves each fall to lure students into their programs. Several courted Roberson with scholarship money. “I’ve been blessed,” she gushes. “I’m so thankful. I owe this place a lot.”

Over the years, the school has gained both local and national attention for its academic accomplishments.

Over the years, the school has gained both local and national attention for its academic accomplishments. Most recently, it was honored as one of 10 New American High Schools by the Department of Education and the National Center for Research in Vocational Education. The success attracts curious outsiders--teachers, administrators, university professors, and reporters--to the small, cluttered school. Teachers and students alike handle inquiries and give impromptu tours. “People are always poking around here with their cameras,” says junior Josh Miyake, a big, gentle kid whose interests are marine biology and Chicago Bulls basketball star Dennis Rodman. He’s earning summer credits in a school food lab, making dill and butter pickles, jams, ketchup, and hot sauce, some of which will be sold at the produce stand the students operate in front of the school.

The academic course of study is tough. Students graduate with 31 credits; the state requires only 20. All students take advanced algebra, trigonometry, biology, chemistry, physics, and a foreign language, plus four years of agricultural science. The academic demands mean heavy course loads, long school days, and summer internships, apprenticeships, and classes. Such rigor also means the school stays open in July and August.

Farmer High’s many requirements don’t faze Xander and Dove O’Connor. They knew what to expect. Their older sister Divinity is a senior at the school. (She is spending the summer in rural Russia on an exchange program.) “It’s been good so far,” says 15-year-old Xander, who aspires to work in an agriculture-related business. “No two weeks here are ever the same.” Dove, who is 14, also gives the school high marks. She thinks she might like to be a teacher, but for now she has more immediate plans: making the school’s cheerleading squad.

Although they are sometimes teased for going to “Hayseed High,” students at the agricultural school defy the farmer stereotype.

Although they are sometimes teased for going to “Hayseed High,” students at the agricultural school defy the farmer stereotype. On this August day, freshmen girls congregating around the produce stand swap compliments on their anything-but-farmlike attire: miniskirts, sundresses, and strappy platform sandals. Their long, ornately painted fingernails are less than ideal for tilling the soil.

The guys are dressed in Chicago Bulls paraphernalia, polo shirts, oversized jeans, baseball caps, and sneakers. They huddle here and there, greeting one another with reserved nods. A few, emulating their pop-culture icons, have painted their nails, too--black, purple, green. The pockets of their low-slung jeans hold chewing gum, not chewing tobacco.

The school’s setting is as surprising as its fashion-conscious students. It sits in the midst of Mount Greenwood, a largely white, working-class neighborhood of modest homes and strip malls. Only a few details reveal the farm focus of the otherwise bland, brick school building. There is the school-run produce stand--stocked, staffed, and ready for business--on the front lawn, the 50 acres of farmland out back, and David Foulke, the school’s farm manager, tooling around on a John Deere tractor.

“It was hard to picture what a farm in the city would look like before I came,” says 27-year-old Foulke. “But it works.”

According to Foulke, extreme weather conditions have made this the worst farm season in 20 years, which explains the sorry-looking corn in the field behind the school. The crop, which Foulke says is supposed to be “as high as your eye by the fourth of July,” is dry and barely knee-high. But Foulke is quick to point out that a bad growing season, while devastating for real farmers, offers good lessons for students. “They’ve learned how weather affects morale, prices in stores, everything,” he says.

Foulke, who studied agriculture at the University of Illinois, grew up on a 120-acre family farm in central Illinois and hopes one day to return to his rural roots. He acknowledges that he’s among the last of his kind. Most children who grow up on farms these days want to leave. “It seems odd,” he says. “Fewer farm kids are willing to stay in the business, and here people are banging down the door to get in.”

The farm and the adjacent school building were once distinct entities. Although the city has owned the farmland since 1846, it was leased to farmers who sold their produce from a roadside stand. The adjacent school was built in the 1950s to accommodate some 300 students.

In the late 1970s, the near-bankrupt Chicago board of education considered selling the property—known as “Chicago’s last farm"—to developers.

In the late 1970s, the near-bankrupt Chicago board of education considered selling the property--known as “Chicago’s last farm"--to developers. But Mount Greenwood residents fought to save the beloved land, and in 1985 the board decided to turn the property into Chicago’s first agricultural high school.

Years of budget constraints and red tape precluded any major improvement or expansion of the old elementary school facility. As a result, every ounce of space has multiple purposes: Classrooms serve as makeshift lunchrooms and gyms (there’s no cafeteria or gymnasium); hallways are transformed into meeting rooms (there’s no auditorium); and the school library is crammed into what was once a tiny classroom. Teachers share office space with tilapia-filled aquariums, caged mice, and lawn mowers. Books, equipment, and supplies--which today include a dozen 40-pound bags of dirt and hundreds of poinsettias ready for planting in the greenhouse--are piled everywhere. A labyrinth of portable classrooms spills into the farm field.

New state-of-the-art facilities will double the size of the school and allow enrollment to grow by 150 students.

With no facilities to house them, the school’s farm animals are always, as one teacher puts it, “just visiting.” On this particular day, a lamb and a few turkeys, chickens, and ducks are touring the school’s small, triangle-shaped courtyard, wandering over pavement and around benches.

But all this is about to change. After years of debate with Mount Greenwood over zoning, the school district has finally launched a major renovation and expansion project. New state-of-the-art facilities will double the size of the school and allow enrollment to grow by 150 students. A cafeteria, gymnasium, library, laboratories, and buildings for farm equipment and animals are now in the works.

As the August school day winds down, agricultural-science teacher William Smith, a 10-year Farmer High veteran, begins wrapping up his “Intro to Ag” lecture. “Remember when I asked how many of you were involved in agriculture?” he asks the wide-eyed freshmen. “Well, no one raised his hand. And then I asked how many of you eat, cook, shop, and everyone did. Well, that’s being intimately involved in agriculture.”

With their Future Farmers of America handbooks open before them, the students take turns naming their career interests.

With their Future Farmers of America handbooks open before them--all students at the school must become FFA members--the students take turns naming their career interests and, with Smith’s help, connecting them in some way to agriculture.

“Remember,” Smith says, “nearly 20 percent of all jobs in this country are related to agriculture. And only 8 percent of those jobs are actually working on a farm. The rest are in business, science, marketing, and communications.”

Several students announce they’d like to become veterinarians.

“Good. Good,” Smith says, pointing to the related agricultural fields in his FFA instructor’s manual. “Equine science. Small-animal care. Zoology.”

Another wants to be a floral designer.

“Floriculture. Great,” Smith says.

And another a chemist.

“Environmental science. Food science and technology,” Smith says. “There are hundreds of different career opportunities.”

The pace breaks, however, when a student proclaims that he’d like to be a composer.

“A musical composer. Hmm,” Smith says, trying to think how a composer’s work might possibly be linked to agriculture. There is a long pause. “Agricultural services!” he declares, reading from his teacher’s guide. “You’d be providing a paid service, a specialty.”

But the students aren’t buying it. Rumbling erupts in the classroom. Smith knows he’s reaching. Laughing, he lets it go, conceding that some of their vocations may lie outside of agriculture.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Urban Agrarians