One Big Classroom
Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS), located in the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood, is truly one of a kind. Looking around the 72-acre campus, Principal William “Bill” Hook says it is “one big classroom.” In his 11th year as principal, Bill has yet to see a typical day. In fact, “there is nothing typical about CHSAS,” he says. Bill shares more about the high school in his own words below.
The Fund: CHSAS has a unique model compared to other schools. How do you integrate traditional academics with agricultural sciences?
Bill Hook: Our curriculum is college prep and career and technical education. At a lot of schools, students choose one or the other, but here, students get both. In addition to traditional academics, students receive eight courses in agriculture. Students graduate with a strong college prep background plus those soft skills like perseverance, teamwork and leadership – those things will make students successful in college and beyond.
Students have six agricultural science pathways to choose from – Construction and Mechanics, Agricultural Finance, Horticulture and Landscape Design, Food Science, Animal Science, and Biotechnology. As freshmen and sophomores, students take a course called Introduction to Agriculture where they spend 30 days in each of the six pathways. Once students select a pathway, everything they do during their remaining time here — any certifications, jobs or internships — is geared toward that pathway.
The Fund: What is one way you have seen students bring together academic and soft skills?
BH: Our students maintain a farm stand from early August through the holidays. We have produce from our garden like squash, zucchini and cucumbers. We have our processed goods like our zucchini bread, honey and farm-fresh eggs. Finally, we have a lot of other products like Poinsettias, pumpkins, hay and cornstalks. Students have total control over the farm stand, and I’ll support whatever the students want to try. If a student says that he wants to start his own business making cakes for example, all he has to do is come up with a business plan, bake the cakes and maintain records. I’ll just help along the way. Students can bring together what they learn in Agricultural Finances and Food Science with leadership and innovative thinking. It’s a good thing for our students, but we’re also opening it up to the community as well.
Things happen on a farm. Animals get sick, animals deliver early. When we had our first horse born here, I got a call from a student. She had watched the webcam we set up to watch the horse and realized the horse was showing signs of going into labor. The student called the barn hand and then she called me — that was the right order — and when I got there, there were probably already 15 people there. Students have ownership over it, that’s the key – they have ownership over their education.
The Fund: Community seems to be a central theme for you and CHSAS. Can you tell us more about how you foster a sense of community with the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood?
BH: We’re a huge part of the community, and I think the community needs to be part of the school. Our building is used by the public from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every weekday and until 5:00 p.m. on the weekends. I can’t tell you how busy our school is on the weekends. We love to see families come to walk around, pet the animals, use our pool and eventually, the new therapeutic barn. They’re welcome here, and they should be!
We host a Thanksgiving dinner every year, and last year there were 390 local senior citizens who attended! From start to finish, everything on that plate was from the farm. We had about 100 of our students serve the food, and the best part about it was seeing them interact with the senior citizens.
The Fund: How do you support your students as they think about post-secondary life?
BH: I’m most proud of the development of our advisory council, which brings together industry partners from around the world to help prepare our students for life after high school. When we first started, we had 32 or 33 partners – we’re up to nearly 70 right now. Marc Schulman of Eli’s Cheesecake co-chairs our advisory council. University of Illinois is one of our oldest partners. Those partners find internships for students, let students shadow jobs and come speak to our students on career day.
We developed partnerships and exchange programs with Hiroshima School of Agriculture in Japan and Suwon School of Agricultural Sciences in South Korea. We have students who went to Nebraska and actually did a cattle drive. We fly the students out to Los Angeles to participate in Engineering Possibilities in College (EPIC) at California Polytechnic State University. If it’s going to benefit students, create an opportunity for students to go somewhere and learn something – we’re going to find a way to do it.
The Fund: What is special about learning about agriculture?
BH: It’s great that our students learn about agriculture, but the subject could be anything. Agriculture just gives us something around which to focus. A majority of our kids don’t go on into agriculture, but it doesn’t mean that they are not served by their experience here. They get the rigor in their academic courses, hands-on application in their agriculture classes and leadership opportunities to pursue outside of the classroom.