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Down on the farm, these Chicago high school students get a unique public education

Students work at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in 2018. (Photo provided by Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.)

The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences is a public school that is set on a working farm. It offers its diverse population of students an education that prepares them for college as well as a career in agriculture. As its website says, this school is the only one of its kind in the Midwest and a model for others around the country.

It is one of eight schools from around the country that were selected in the 2017  “Schools of Opportunity” project, which recognizes public high schools that work to close opportunity gaps by creating learning environments that reach every student.  You can submit applications for the 2018 cycle here through the end of April.

Here are eight ‘Schools of Opportunity’ that do extraordinary things for students

The Schools of Opportunity project started in 2014 as a pilot in New York and Colorado, and went national in 2015-16. Several dozen schools have been honored in the program, which assesses a range of factors (see graphic below), including how well the adults in a school building  provide health and psychological support for students as well as judicious and fair discipline policies, and broad and enriched curriculum.

The following piece profiles the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. It was co-written by Kevin Welner, one of the founders of the Schools of Opportunity project, who is director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law. The other co-writer is Linda Molner Kelley, former assistant dean of teacher education and partnerships, and director for outreach and engagement at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The effort to detail successful public schools in traditional districts may have more resonance than ever in the era of President Trump, whose education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has made it her top priority to expand alternatives to them.

In the coming weeks, I will publish profiles of other winning schools in the 2017 Schools of Opportunity cycle — six “gold” and two “silver.”  Along with the Chicago high school, the other gold winners are: Broome Street Academy Charter High School in New York City; Denver South High School in Denver; Health Sciences High & Middle College in San Diego; Lincoln High School in Nebraska; and Seaside High School in California.  The two Silver Schools of Opportunity for 2017 are: Hammond High School in Columbia, Maryland; and William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado.

The 20 schools that won 2016 Schools of Opportunity awards — and why they were selected

By Kevin Welner and Linda Ann Molner Kelley

Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences
Chicago, Illinois
Principal: William Hook
Superintendent: Janice K. Jackson
Enrollment: 720
Economically disadvantaged: 50 percent

While career and vocational pathways in many U.S. high schools are academically watered down, that doesn’t have to be the case. Students at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) are challenged and engaged in a full array of academic courses, and they leave the school ready to attend college.

CHSAS is a public school operating on 72 acres of Chicago’s last working farm, and it offers its entire diverse student body a first-class college-preparatory curriculum that integrates learning with a solid career-technical education.

Students at CHSAS choose between six agricultural pathways grounded in rigorous learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). These include animal science, food science, agricultural mechanics, horticulture/landscape design, agricultural education and agricultural finance. Well-resourced laboratories and facilities mean students have access to real-world tools and practical applications of their studies.

Course work at CHSAS is challenging, and the school’s graduation requirements are stricter than the district’s. Students take an additional year of math and science, and every student is required to take the PSAT and SAT exams. Even so, the school’s five-year graduate rate of 92 percent is 19 points above the district average.

The school’s interdisciplinary curriculum engages students in interesting, project-and theme-based learning across subject areas. Juniors at the school, for example, read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a novel about the meatpacking industry in Chicago a century ago, while concurrently studying the Chicago history of that era. Meanwhile, students in agricultural pathways classes research agricultural laws and food safety regulations that emerged as a result of the book’s publication.

Cross-curricular projects that integrate academic and career learning also fuel authentic, student-centered assessments rarely found on such a broad scale in high schools. All CHSAS students develop substantive portfolios of their work across subject areas from 9th to 12th grades. To determine how well students are learning key concepts and what needs to be reviewed, teachers also create and administer skills-based performance tasks aligned with classroom lessons.

The diverse students at CHSAS appreciate these authentic evaluations of their learning. One female African American student commented, “By running the farm stand, we learn how to run our own businesses. This type of ‘test’ actually lets us demonstrate our hands-on training. We can show the knowledge and experience we’ve gained on how to run a business by putting it into practice.”

A bilingual Latina student, who will be the first in her family to graduate from high school, expressed how much she benefits from the school’s student-focused performance and portfolio requirements.

“The assessments I take here show how much I can do,” she said. “The labs I do in food science help me demonstrate my own way of thinking, without standardizing it. Our teacher can actually see how we perform and redirect us if we need it… When you look at a test score, you’re compared to everyone else by a number, but with the portfolio, and what you put into it, you’re showing who you are.”

Her classmate, himself soon to be a first-generation college student, agreed. “My portfolio shows my best work. It’s the root of my best performances at school. I think it really sums up my potential. The things I can’t necessarily put into words, the stuff a resume couldn’t show, are revealed in my portfolio.”

Intentionally structured to serve diverse student groups, CHSAS insures that all demographic groups and students with special needs have access to required core and agricultural classes. Designated as a “cluster” site for students with special needs, including those on the Autism spectrum and others with severe and profound disabilities, CHSAS includes these students in running and managing the farm and in regular academic and agricultural coursework — with services and supports as needed. All of the school’s students are members of the National Future Farmers of America (FFA) Organization, a leadership organization for students in agricultural programs, and they work together on various FFA competitions and projects.

To achieve its integrated learning mission, CHSAS maintains strong partnerships with agricultural industry representatives, post-secondary partners such as the University of Illinois and Iowa State University, and related community organizations. In tandem with their required course work, informal learning opportunities support students as they prepare for professional horticultural competitions and maintain supplier relationships with local grocery stores.

Students also attend local agricultural conferences, engage in job shadowing and internships, enroll in summer programs and research apprenticeships, and run three service projects a year for the local community. Industry partners visit classrooms, help teachers create demonstrations on the land lab, and assist CHSAS students in teaching elementary students about agriculture.

When NEPC’s evaluation team members visited the school, they left impressed by how much the students “expressed their love of the school and of their teachers, and seemed to have an empowered relationship with their learning.”

“The curriculum does a uniquely good job of integrating academics and career technical education while offering all students a college preparatory curriculum,” the team members said in a report. “The students displayed an impressive degree of ownership and pride over their work and feel proud of the ways this approach equips them with both strong academic and practical knowledge and expertise. CHSAS is a perfect example of a dynamic learning community, united by shared interests and a commitment to each and every student.”

CHSAS also captured the interest of researchers from George Washington and George Mason Universities, who in 2014 published a case study report  on the school as part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation. In it, the authors held CHSAS up as a model high school addressing a real need for inclusive programs that prepare high school students for both careers and college, all without sacrificing rigor.

We agree. It is precisely that unique blend of academics and engaging career preparation that have earned CHSAS a gold recognition as a School of Opportunity.

(Correction: School’s full name is Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.)