WASHINGTON — Building a portable greenhouse and learning to care for animals make up just some of the experiences students have had over the past two years in Shepaug Valley School’s Regional Agriscience program.

The program, which is beginning its third year, started with 41 students and has now tripled in size to 119 students. While four students will be graduating in the spring, the first full class — 33 students — will graduate in 2023.

Agricultural Science and Technology Education programs are state funded and prepare students for college and careers in fields such as animal science, agricultural mechanics, aquaculture, biotechnology, food science, and marine technology. There are about 20 ASTE programs in the state.

A goal of increasing enrollment was an original catalyst for the program — and the program has achieved this goal at Shepaug Valley School, according to Region 12 Superintendent Megan Bennett.

Students in the program come from nine towns, not including those that make up Region 12 — Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater. For the first time, the school, which is located on School Street in Washington Depot, has students from Bethel enrolled in the program.

As for agriscience revenue, Region 12 receives $5,200 from the state for every student who attends the program. Sending districts pay an additional $6,823 per student. There are 77 students in the program from sending districts. All funding received is to run and operate the program, said Bennett.

New agriscience teacher, Meghan Berry, starts this year, completing the program’s staff.

“Megan’s hire is the fourth and final agriscience teacher that was part of our original business plan,” Bennett said. “We’ve got an amazing group of teachers, educators and agricultural connoisseurs to pull the program forward.”

Additionally, the program will host students from Little Britches Therapeutic Riding in Roxbury in the fall and next spring.

“We had our pilot last spring,” Bennett said.

The pilot was formed due to a need for an indoor facility — Little Britches only has outdoor facilities, and is therefore only open from April to November. The partnership has provided continuity for the riders, who have been able to ride at Shepaug Valley’s indoor facility.

The pilot utilized student volunteers from Shepaug.

“Student volunteers are not just restricted to agriscience students,” said agriscience teacher Anne Hermans. “We’re an integral part of the school and of the community, so any Shepaug student can volunteer with them.”

For the first time this year, the agriscience students will be competing in the Big E, a multi-state agricultural fair in Massachusetts on Sept. 17.

“We will have a team competing in the boutonniere making competition and have been instructing all of the agriscience students in this wonderful skill,” Hermans said. “We also have one student entering the floral display.”

Additionally, in October, the school will also be sending students to the FFA National Convention in Indianapolis. The FFA is a student organization for those interested in agriculture and leadership.

Agriscience students took part in multiple projects throughout the school year. One involved growing plants from seeds as part of the school’s pollinator pathway.

“Students were involved in every aspect of that from growing the plants to getting ready for the sale to making the sales to the clean-up to the funds and the accounting,” Hermans said. “Those funds are going to help send our kids now to field trips this year.”

Students also directed the construction of a shed for the on-site animals.

“The purpose is to provide shelter for animals that are in that pasture,” Hermans said. “The students planned it and built it and took it up there.”

Yet another project was building a portable greenhouse. Many groups of students collaborated on the project.

“Students from all pathways joined in to build a special kind of portable greenhouse called a high tunnel. This is a place where you put plants in between the main greenhouse and the great outdoors. They need a little bit of protection,” said Hermans, adding the planning, design, implementation and the care for the plants was “all hands on deck.”

Last year, due to the pandemic, students had an option of distance learning. Those who took that option were involved in synchronous instruction over Zoom, Hermans said.

“They participated in class activities and discussions and were able to view, if not perform, hands-on,” she said. “Their work was sometimes at home, and was sometimes research based.”

All students are now back in person full time.

“We are following state recommendations for COVID safety,” she said. This includes wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

“Social distancing has now been determined to be safe at 3 feet so that’s allowing us to do more collaboration and hands on,” Hermans said.

Bennett said the “beautiful thing” about the agriscience program is its sense of community.

“Students are still getting the core high school experience, and the Shepaug experience is really one in which it’s a tightknit community and it is one in which they’re brought into that tightknit community,” she said.

By having hands-on agricultural experiences and direct contact with animals, she said students learn “if their passion is something that will be held beyond high school.”

Bennett continued, “We are getting our students executive skills within their high school experience, and that really does set them apart from other high school graduates. It’s high school with an enhancement.”

Connecticut Media Group