A new approach to agriculture high skills majors

Emma Francis is enrolled in the current Specialized High Skills Major in agriculture at Mitchell District High School and is doing her co-op placement at a sheep farm. Photo: Courtesy Sandi Brock
by Stew Slater   Contributor   FARMtario

A new, more immersive high skills major in agriculture will bring secondary school students from across the Avon Maitland school board to one location, to study with students with a similar interest.

Why it matters: High skills majors have been around since 2006, including some in agriculture, but they still struggle to get enough students to stay with the program long enough. The program was thought to be a way to help alleviate the many agriculture jobs going unfilled.

Jodie Baker, a superintendent at the Avon Maitland District School Board who oversees Specialized High Skills Majors (SHSMs) in nine secondary schools in Huron and Perth counties, says challenges with the program include that one high school can only offer a small number of specialties and that as students complete the requirements over a span of two or even three years, some lose interest in meeting those requirements.

With those limitations in mind, Baker spearheaded key changes to an agriculture-themed SHSM at Mitchell District High School (MDHS), scheduled to start next September with a pilot project. She and her team began promoting the pilot project last month to Grade 10 students – at all of the board’s nine secondary schools.

Here is what secondary school students have to take to receive the SHSM designation:

  • School administrators make available what are referred to as a “bundle” of Grade 11 and Grade 12 credits.
  • Four courses specific to the sector, three required courses from the Ontario curriculum in English, Mathematics, and a choice of Business or Science, as well as two cooperative (Co-op) education credits tied to the sector.
  • Students must also complete six sector-recognized certifications and/or training courses, and what are officially referred to on the Ministry of Education website as “Reach Ahead experiences” connected with the student’s post-secondary plans.

The Avon Maitland board, which covers the leading agriculture counties of Huron and Perth, only has one high skills major available now – at Mitchell. Students in the pilot program entering Grade 11 would spend the entire fall semester in the classroom, securing the four sector-specific credits. They would then either remain at MDHS (if they were originally students at the school) or return to their home school to complete the program’s other requirements.

The red seal on an Ontario secondary school diploma indicates a graduate from one of the high skills majors programs.
Photo: Stew Slater

Transportation to Mitchell will be included as part of the funding from the board.

“Yes, there’s obviously an interest in agriculture and farming at other schools in the board. But each school can only have a certain number of SHSMs,” explained MDHS teacher Nick Keller — who coordinates the day-to-day workings of the school’s Agriculture SHSM.

Through her years at the Avon Maitland headquarters, Baker – also a former MDHS principal — has spoken to education ministry representatives about the limitations of the model.

She also considered the benefits of a more “immersive” approach, through which SHSM students aren’t simply placed in regular-stream math, science or business courses and offered occasional sector-specific lessons, but rather spend the entire term studying math or business with a sector focus.

Emma Francis entered Grade 11 one year too early to be part of next fall’s pilot project. The Monkton-area resident, whose family operates a cash crop farm, began completing requirements of MDHS’s Agriculture SHSM in September, 2017, and now this semester is spending 2 ½ hours every school-day morning completing her co-op placement at Sandi Brock’s Staffa-area sheep farm.

“I’ve always been interested in animals, and I wanted to see if it might be something I would like doing,” Francis said.

Emma Francis is enrolled in the current Specialized High Skills Major in agriculture at Mitchell District High School.
Photo: Stew Slater

Community support is also essential for helping students meet the co-op requirements. Placements are typically offered in the form of either full-day or half-day credits. And the placements don’t necessarily have to fit into the 8:45-2:50 timeline of the school day.

“Our students don’t worry about having to get up and milk cows early in the morning,” Keller said. “We’ve got a great work ethic among our students.”

This program ties into the “Opportunity 2020” report published last year through the support of the municipalities within Perth County, the provincial government, and various social service agencies including the two main publicly funded school boards.

The report cites “a lack of awareness and misperceptions regarding the nature and importance of agricultural occupations, particularly among youth,” along with a concern among agriculture-sector employers about “a need to highlight the appealing aspects of agriculture not only as a job but also, as…a career path.”

“This program fits right in with that,” Baker said, adding she recently met with a group of Grade 9 students and showed them a resume from a student who had graduated with an Agriculture SHSM designation. It included the certifications and training undertaken by the student as part of the program. “I said, if you were the employer, who would you want to hire, based on the first glance at the resumes?”

The answer, Baker believes, was clear. And, with the planned enhancements to Mitchel District High School’s Agriculture SHSM for next fall, she hopes even more Grade 11 students from a wider region will take advantage of the program.

For information, visit the Avon Maitland District School Board website or contact Keller at 519-348-8495 or nicholas.keller@ed.amdsb.ca.