Hayseed High

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The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences prepares students for careers far beyond the traditional corn and cow pursuits.

They are the most unlikely of farmers working on the most unlikely of farms. And like most Illinois farmers on this late summer morning, Xander and Dove O'Connor--brother and sister--are well into their first chore. But it's the pounding rhythm of the subway, not roosters, that summons the duo at dawn five mornings a week. And, unlike "real" country farmers, the O'Connors' first task is simply getting to the farm.

Xander and Dove are students at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Each weekday, two of Chicago's elevated trains and a city bus take them far from the Lincoln Park home they share with their parents and five other siblings to so-called "Farmer High," on the southwest edge of the city. The school is one of Chicago's nine magnet schools, and one of two city schools in the nation devoted to agriculture (the other is in Philadelphia).

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, they say, they'd never imagined planting corn, milking cows, and driving tractors would be part of their life experience.

But the agricultural school isn't at all intended tobe a fast track to farming. Rather, it's an agriculturally focused prep school, where a tough academic curriculum and hands-on learning ready urban students--80 percent of whom are black or Hispanic--not only for the rigors of college but also for careers in the agricultural industry.

Applications arrive at the school each year en masse.

"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," she adds, 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--corn and cow pursuits--represent only a small percentage of agricultural professions.

With more and more rural kids eschewing farm life for more commonplace city and suburban endeavors, agriculture may seem an unlikely lure for city-smart teens. Yet applications arrive at the school each year en masse. Valerious says parents and students are attracted to the school's small size and safety, especially compared with Chicago's poorest, overcrowded, and otherwise troubled schools that some of the applicants are zoned to attend. But its academic and vocational focus--and the prospects of college and good jobs that follow--are the school's bread and butter.

David L. Chicoine, the dean of agricultural, consumer, and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recruits heavily from the agricultural high school and says job opportunities in the 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."

The popularity of the agricultural high school may signal that a modern approach to agricultural education could turn this trend around. Last year, more than 1,000 students applied for 140 of the high school's freshman slots. The applicants aren't 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 at the high school aren't chosen for their test scores and grades, their achievements have been exceptional: In 1995, the school had a 91 percent graduation rate, compared with 61 percent for other 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.

College recruiters visit the school in droves each fall to lure students into their programs.

Tiffany Roberson, who graduated near the top of her 1996 class, has enrolled at Delaware State University in Dover this fall on a full four-year scholarship to study environmental science. "I loved it here," she says on an afternoon visit to show favorite teachers a scholarship award she had just received in Washington 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, and several campuses courted Roberson with full scholarships. Much of her success, she says, is owed to the school. "I've been blessed," she gushes. "I'm so thankful. I owe this place a lot."

Over the years, the school gained both local and national attention for its academic accomplishments and most recently was named one of 10 New American High Schools, an award for instructional innovation given in May by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Its success brings the curious--reporters, visiting teachers, school administrators, university professors--to the small, cluttered school, and staff members and students are adept at handling inquiries and giving impromptu tours. "People are always poking around here with their cameras," explains junior Josh Miyake, a big, gentle kid whose interests are marine biology and basketball star Dennis Rodman. He's earning summer credits in a food lab making dill and butter pickles, jams, ketchup, and hot sauce, some of which will sell at a school-run produce stand.

The academic course is tough: Students at the agricultural school graduate with 31 credits; the required minimum for the state of Illinois is 20. And all students must take advanced algebra, trigonometry, biology, chemistry, physics, and a foreign language, plus four years of agriculture-science classes. For students, the bounty of academic demands means heavier course loads, longer school days, and a lot of summer internships, apprenticeships, and classes--the latter of which keep the school occupied in July and August.

The school's considerable demands don't faze the O'Connors. Older sister Divinity, a senior earning summer credits on an exchange program in rural Russia, liked the school enough for 15-year-old Xander and 14-year-old Dove to follow suit (the school admissions policy encourages such family bias). "It's been good so far," says Xander, who has aspirations to work in an agriculture-related business. "No two weeks here are ever the same." Dove also likes what she's come to know of the school and thinks she might like to be a teacher. But for now, she has more immediate plans to make the school's cheerleading squad.

Although sometimes teased for going to "Hayseed High," students at the agriculture school defy any farmer stereotype.

Although sometimes teased for going to "Hayseed High," students at the agriculture school defy any farmer stereotype. On an August school day, freshman girls congregate in front of the produce stand and exchange a battery of compliments on the day's anything but farmlike attire: miniskirts, sundresses, and strappy, platform sandals. Their long, ornately painted nails are less than ideal for tilling the land.

The guys, clad in various Chicago Bulls paraphernalia, polo shirts, oversized jeans, and baseball caps, stoically huddle and greet each other with reserved nods. A few of them, emulating their favorite MTV stars and basketball icons, have nails painted shades of black, purple, and green. A glance downward finds basketball sneakers, not cowboy boots. And a check of the pockets on their low-slung jeans turns up 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 Chicago neighborhood dotted with modest homes and strip malls. Only a few distinguishable details reveal the farm focus of an otherwise bland, brick school building: The school-run produce stand is stocked, staffed, and ready for business on the front lawn, 50 acres of farmland sits out back, and farm manager David Foulke buzzes between the fields and the school's busy, bordering streets on a John Deere tractor.

"It was hard to picture what a farm in the city would look like before I came," says Foulke, 27, who grew up on a 120-acre farm in central Illinois and studied agriculture at the University of Illinois. "But it works."

A series of weather extremes made this the worst farm season in 20 years, Foulke says. Cornfields, which are supposed to be "as high as your eye by the fourth of July," are dry and about knee-high this August day. But Foulke is quick to point out that a bad season of crops can be a good lesson for students. "They've learned how weather affects morale, prices in stores, everything," he says. Students will bundle and sell the dry corn as autumn ornaments, profits for which the students can keep for personal use.

Foulke, who comes from a family of farmers and hopes to someday return to his rural roots, concedes that he's among the last of his breed. "It seems odd," he says of the city-farm. "Fewer farm kids are willing to stay in the business, and here, people are banging down the door to get in."

The school's curriculum readies urban students for the rigors of college and a career in agriculture.

The farm and its adjacent school were once distinct entities. Although the city has owned the farm since 1846, the land was leased to farmers who sold their produce from a roadside stand. Its adjacent school, the former Keller Elementary School for Gifted Children, was built in the 1950s to accommodate 300 students.

In the late 1970s, the near-bankrupt Chicago board of education began eyeing the property--known as "Chicago's last farm"--as ripe for sale to developers. Mount Greenwood fought to save the beloved land, and in 1985, the board decided to use the property for its first agricultural high school. Under a court-sanctioned desegregation plan in place in Chicago schools since 1980, the school needs a minority enrollment of 65 percent to 85 percent. (Today, the racial makeup of the school is about 19 percent white, 64 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic, 0.6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 0.4 percent Native American.)

Years of budget constraints and red tape prevented expansion of the former elementary school. Students and staff have been squashed into all corners of the school, and every kernel of space serves multiple purposes: Classrooms are transformed into lunchrooms and gyms (there's no cafeteria or gymnasium); hallways into meeting rooms (there's no auditorium). The school library is crammed into a tiny classroom.

Teachers share "offices" with tilapia-filled aquariums, caged mice, and lawn mowers. Books and equipment--which today includes a dozen or more 40-pound bags of dirt and hundreds of poinsettias ready for planting in the greenhouse so they'll be ready for sale come Christmas--are piled everywhere. A labyrinth of portable classrooms spills into the farm fields.

With no facilities to house them, farm animals at the school are always "just visiting." And on this day, a lamb and a few turkeys, chickens, and ducks are touring the school's small, triangle-shaped courtyard, wandering over pavement and around park benches.

But after years of heated struggle over zoning between the school and Mount Greenwood, major renovations and a 25-acre facility expansion are finally under way. The state-of-the-art facilities will double the size of the school and allow 150 additional students to enroll, easing overcrowding and providing the cafeteria, gymnasium, library, laboratories, and buildings for farm equipment and animals that the school so desperately needs.

The summer day on the city-farm is winding toa close, and agricultural-science teacher William Smith, a 10-year veteran of the high school, is wrapping up his "Intro to Ag" lecture to a group of wide-eyed freshman.

"Remember the first day when I asked how many of you were involved in agriculture?" he asks. "Well, no one raised their 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 prominently before them (all students at the school must become FFA members), the students take turns naming their career interests and figuring out whether those interests have anything to do with agriculture.

"Remember," Smith says, intent on fusing the connection between their lives and agriculture in the final moments of his class period, "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 that they'd like to be veterinarians.

"Good. Good," Smith says, pointing out the related agriculture fields in his FFA instructor's manual. "Equine science. Small-animal care. Zoology."

Another wants to be a floral designer.

"Floriculture, great."

And another a chemist.

"Environmental science. Food science and technology. There are hundreds of different career opportunities," he enthuses.

The tempo breaks when a student proclaims that he'd like to be a composer. "A musical composer, hmm," Smith says, hesitating to think how a composer 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 look bewildered. Rumbling erupts in the class. Smith knows that he's reaching with this one and gently laughing, lets it go, admitting that some of their vocations may lie outside the agricultural arena.

He assigns homework and makes a fleetingreference to Oliver Wendell Douglas (Eddie Albert)--the farmer in the 1960s television comedy "Green Acres" who, with reluctant wife, Lisa (Eva Gabor),leaves behind the good life in Manhattan for more simple pleasures on a farm in Hooterville. Class is dismissed.

Vol. 16, Issue 04

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