Unique high school trains future agriculture workers

Pamela Steinle

Peter Ryther leaned over two fat guinea pigs in his science classroom Friday.

The ninth-grader described how he collects their feces and then uses them as fertilizer. Ryther wants to find out if guinea pig waste fertilizes better than rabbit waste.

It sounds like a science fair project, but this is just part of the curriculum at the Agricultural and Food Sciences Academy.

Ryther and approximately 50 other students attend the new high school, which opened this fall in Little Canada. The charter school focuses on agricultural sciences, food sciences and natural resources.

The academy was created by the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council, which was founded in 1997 by the Minnesota Legislature as a way to coordinate all agricultural education programs in the state.

“We were really concerned about the drop in agriculture education enrollment,” said council co-chairwoman Rep. Elaine Harder, R-Jackson.

The academy works closely with the University, the Minnesota State Fair, Minnesota agri-businesses and agricultural organizations to train people to work in the agricultural and food processing industries.

Academy administration said they hope to have a permanent facility on the State Fairgrounds by fall 2004.

Currently, 20 percent of Minnesota jobs require competence in agricultural and food sciences and natural resources, according to an academy brochure.

Ryther transferred from Trinity School at River Ridge in Bloomington, Minn.

“I didn’t like my other school,” Ryther said. “There were too many rules. Boys and girls were separated.”

At the co-educational academy he received his own computer and an office-like cubicle with a filing cabinet.

More importantly, Ryther said, he has more control over what he learns and how he learns it.

Project-based learning allows Ryther to fulfill graduation standards. So far he has worked on a student newspaper, compared the movie “Braveheart” to the historical Sir William Wallace and built a model house.

But the school day also has structure. Project time and classes are mixed throughout the day.

Ryther’s morning consists of math, Spanish or time to work on one of his projects. After lunch he studies science and social studies.

But the agricultural focus of the school pervades most of its curriculum.

Last week Ryther’s science class made a moisture detector. Moisture detectors are used in agricultural and horticultural crop production.

At the academy, class instructors prefer the title “facilitator” instead of the traditional “teacher.”

“You’re not the sage on the stage; you’re the guide on the side,” said science facilitator Carl Aakre, quoting a catchphrase all staff are familiar with.

Aakre said that in a project-based learning environment, students cannot sit back and let the world fly by.

They have to take the initiative, and this teaches them lifelong learning skills such as organization and time management, Aakre said.

“It’s very exciting to see kids holding themselves accountable for their education,” Aakre said.