WASHINGTON — In the middle of the afternoon one day last week at Shepaug Valley School, students Audrey Trahan, Emma Raymond, and Isabelle Easley cleaned stalls, fed sheep and groomed horses.
The three girls are enrolled in the school’s regional agriscience program, which opened last August. 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.
“The agriscience program extends far beyond the classroom walls,” Principal Kim Gallo said. “This is a working farm. They learn by being part of a working farm.”
Students enrolled in the program choose from four possible tracks: plants, animals, food production and processing, and structural and technical systems. All of the elements of STEM are part of the program.
There are 81 students in the program, with 47 out of district. The program is made up mainly of ninth- and 10th-graders.
“The first year, the kids explore each of the pathways,” Gallo said. “At the end of their freshman year, they choose one.”
Shepaug Valley School students who are not enrolled in the program can take agriscience classes as electives.
As part of the program, students spend 80 percent of their day in core courses and high school requirements, and 20 percent in electives. They listen to lectures, but also have hands-on time every week when they work directly with the animals. There are about 30 different kinds of animals on campus.
They also take an SAE (supervised agricultural experience). According to Gallo, this is an externship that students design where they work a set number of hours depending upon their grade level.
Additionally, they are required to enroll in a National Future Farmers of America Leadership Organization, which is a student-led program that involves doing research projects to be able to care for animals and manage them.
Rachel Murray, a food, science and plant science teacher at the school, said Shepaug’s agriscience program places a strong focus on sustainability. “Our goal is to have some certified organic fields for our plant science area,” she said. “In food science, we focus on buying local ingredients and understanding our local agricultural community with the food that we’re cooking with.”
Newtown resident Audrey Trahan, 15, said she loves learning about the well-being of horses and wants to be an equine veterinarian.
Emma Raymond, of New Milford, 14, said her dream job is to become a mounted police, and the experience she’s getting through the program is a “ bonus” before college. Another career Emma said she’s exploring is a barn manager.
Jeyla Lantigua, 14, of Danbury, said she enjoys all the “un-glamorous” parts about taking care of farm animals, such as cleaning their cages.
Through Jeyla’s experiences, she said she learned there are strong similarities between caring for barn animals and caring for her own house pets. “I have a pet hamster and I have to spot clean her cage too,” Jeyla said.
The program receives financial and instructional support from the state Department of Education. Payment for each student comes from other sending districts. In the 2018-19 school year, tuition from sending communities was set at $6,823 per student. Each sending municipality is responsible for transportation to and from school. Additionally, every agriscience program in Connecticut is subsidized per student with an annual grant. In the 2018-19 school year, the subsidy was set at $3,911 per student.
The state paid for 75 percent of the construction of the school, which involved the barn, kitchen, greenhouse, a plant science lab, and a floral marketing center.
The agriscience program was built at the school to help stabilize the population in the area, since it’s sinking, according to Gallo. “That’s true in all of Litchfield County,” Gallo said. Region 12’s enrollment has dropped over the years. It was 685 in 2018, down from 841 in 2012 and 1,057 in 2007.
“It’s important to expose our kids to a lot of different ways of learning. This program allows us to do that and to keep their minds open.” Gallo said. “You will come out of here with a different way of understanding that you don’t get entirely in books.”