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Agriculture Magnet School - 2002-01-20

A secondary high school in the American Plains state of Nebraska has breathed new life into its vocational agricultural program. The new curriculum is helping rural students discover new paths to careers in agricultural science and business:

A half dozen chicks, just a couple of days old, get a little attention from 9th graders at Mead High School. Then, the 14-year-olds take their seats for their Agriculture Literacy class. It's a required course for all freshmen here.

A few kilometers from the high school, students in the Plant Soil Science class mark out a series of test plots on a patch of grass a small part of the 4,000 hectares that make up the University of Nebraska's Agricultural Research and Development Center. Lanny Witt manages the turf research facility. "We're gonna show em how to calibrate a fertilizer spreader.. And we're gonna show 'em sorta like a little research here," he says.

Farming-related courses like this one are typical in rural high schools across Nebraska, where 95-percent of the real estate is farmland, and where one-out-of-four jobs depends, in some way, on agriculture.

Most parents of Mead High School students know the importance of agriculture first-hand. They raise grain crops or run cattle-feeding operations. So they were supportive when the school launched the program it calls "Making Education in Agriculture Different" or MEAD, for short … the nation's first Agriculture Magnet School in farm country.

Magnet Schools are usually found in urban school districts in the United States. The idea is to create centers of excellence in one subject area -- such as performing arts, computer science or math, in order to attract a racially diverse student population to schools located in parts of cities with high minority populations.

In rural areas, there are few minority students. But there are lean budgets and shrinking agriculture programs. So, the Mead School District took the Magnet School concept and gave it a new twist. It created a center of excellence in agriculture to attract more of its own students to the program… as well as students from other districts.

"I burned out as a teacher 4 or five years ago..". After nearly 20 years in the classroom, former agricultural researcher Joe Baldassare was ready to change careers again. Then, a long time friend who was retiring from Mead High school, asked Mr. Baldassare to step in and teach on a temporary basis.

At about the same time, Mead administrators and school board members realized they needed to modernize their agriculture program.

Mr. Baldassare says the curriculum was not preparing young people for the 21st century careers that could take them from local farms to international agribusiness centers. "We live in a town, which is between the urban centers of Omaha, Lincoln and Fremont, all of which are agribusiness centers, all of which draw our students for employment in agribusiness," he says.

So Joe Baldassare dusted off an idea he had come up a decade before… an agriculture magnet school. Forging a link with the nearby University of Nebraska research center was the first step. "This opened up a door for us. We actually had university people who bought into the concept that we have of education, creating this seamless tie between secondary education at the high school and post-secondary education at the University or community college," he says.

Mead's Agricultural Magnet program focuses on five career paths: plant, animal and food sciences… as well as agribusiness and agricultural technology. Students take these specialized classes in addition to traditional high school requirements, like English and Math.

Seventeen-year old Ashley Storm is studying the Animal Sciences Curriculum and loves the classes she takes inside and outside the classroom. She says she's gaining a new understanding of the animals on her family's farm. "What we did so far is, we looked up all the different colors of horses and it shows all their genes and how they go together, about the dominant and the recessive, and what color trait they'll end up getting," she says.

The change to a magnet school has also taught the Mead faculty a lesson, in inter-disciplinary teaching. Teachers of various subjects found ways to tie their courses to the Magnet's agricultural theme. The journalism teacher, for example, developed a class on agriculture advertising. The family consumer science teacher has taken on a food-processing course. Math and science teachers, as well, have given their lesson plans an agricultural focus.

Roughly 80 percent of the 120 students at Mead High school are enrolled in the magnet program. And about 20 students from other eastern Nebraska schools participate through television hook-ups.

While most of Mr. Baldassare's Ag Technology students sit in his Mead classroom, a few attend his class sitting in front of a television camera 100 kilometers away… in Clarkson, Nebraska. Cameras on both ends allow the teacher and the students to see and hear one another.

Brian Cech says it took him awhile to get used to the television hookup. But he appreciates being able to learn the latest crop technology. "Like how-many-day (how fast-growing) corn it is, if it's Round-Up-Ready (genetically-altered to tolerate the weed-killer 'RoundUp'), and if it fights against corn borers (if the corn is genetically-engineered to resist a major corn pest)," he says.

The MEAD Agriculture Magnet School has generated a lot of interest across Nebraska. Next fall, two more high schools begin magnet programs.

There's international interest as well. Mead faculty have briefed agriculture teachers in Southern Australia, via satellite. And instructors from Armenia visited Nebraska last fall to tour the school.

Even Mead students are going "international", through a "product exchange" program with students in the Dominican Republic. Magnet students will set up a marketing program for coffee from the Caribbean country. Students there plan to package and market Nebraska popcorn.