Agriculture and our food system are the cause of some of the biggest problems we face in the world right now; they are also one of the best potential solutions. Through agriculture we have the power to improve health and wellness of both farmers and those they feed, we can remove carbon from our atmosphere, and we can provide jobs and strengthen communities. From day one, my work at Big Green has been rooted in the foundation of introducing the power of food and agriculture to Chicago’s youth. Big Green builds Learning Gardens (200 built in CPS by the end of the 2018-’19 school year, including O’Keeffe, Beethoven, Burke, and Rowe elementary schools). We create a healthier future for kids by connecting them to real food through our nationwide network of Learning Gardens and food literacy programs. We educate a new generation of food lovers and innovators to make changes in their food preferences.
So when Stand for Children asked Big Green to represent them on the Illinois Agriculture Education Shortage Task Force, I was thrilled! I come to this work from outside the traditional world of agriculture education: I am an urbanite; I am a gardener, not a farmer; I’m a non-profit Program Manager, not a teacher or school administrator. However, my work at Big Green connects me to over a thousand teachers in CPS working with classrooms, urban agriculture programs, and school gardens that range from small to expansive. It gives me a unique perspective to help strengthen agricultural education here in Illinois. And with so much of our work invested in agricultural education, and ultimately the future of agriculture, this was an incredible opportunity to make sure Illinois’ school districts have the resources they need to continue to elevate agriculture education in the classroom.
The purpose of this task force was to address the fact that despite growth in the industry, our state has not invested in the teachers working to lead the charge for our next generation of farmers, farm tech innovators, processors, distributors, food scientists, and researchers. Here in Illinois, over the past five years enrollment in middle school agriculture courses has risen, with almost 2,500 more students involved in ag. ed. programs. Twenty-five percent of jobs in Illinois are in the agriculture industry. In Chicago, we boast of being one of the nation’s leaders in food innovation. There is a great opportunity for Illinois to be the frontrunner in agriculture innovation in this country.
This task force provided the opportunity to address some of the biggest challenges in Illinois’ educational landscape while supporting long term growth in our statewide economic drivers. As a state, we struggle with both recruitment of new ag. ed. teachers and with retention of experienced teachers. The good news is that this year there were 41 graduates from agriculture teacher preparation programs in Illinois, double the amount of graduates from 2017. On the other side of the coin is the fact that even with such a significant increase, we are still not producing enough teachers to fill all the 44 available positions. We need a larger pool of qualified educators to teach those programs if we want to support strong agriculture education programs in Illinois.
The group of agriculture education professionals working on this task force are on the front lines of solving these issues at their schools across the state, both at the secondary and post-secondary levels. The recommendations of the task force are designed to work together to support the effort, but there are a couple that stand out to me as particularly powerful.
First, the task force recommends that Illinois builds on the growth of enrollment in middle school agricultural classes on a state-wide level. This will drive enrollment in high school programs, and start students on a track to move into the agriculture education field as they begin to think about career opportunities. Additionally, the recommendation to elevate agriculture as a college-track program will help students at both the middle and high school levels think of agriculture and agriculture education as more viable options for pursuit as a career.
At Big Green, we already reach over 100,000 CPS students in elementary and high school. If schools are better equipped to build on school garden programs with agriculture education classes, students could have much more impact on the school food environment. This will not only serve the needs of agriculture education, but also continue to improve access to fresh local produce and increase the health and wellness impacts that result from those programs.
Another recommendation that I’m particularly excited about is that Illinois prioritize funding to support paraprofessionals in agriculture classrooms. There is an enormous burden on agriculture teachers. As we wrote in the report, “Agriculture educators are often required to fill many roles in addition to teaching, including bookkeeper, compliance officer, greenhouse manager, grant writer, farm manager, bus driver, fundraiser, hoof trimmer, graphic designer, salesman, and more. The opportunity to have some of these responsibilities performed by individuals possessing skills other than those required for teachers would provide the support needed to allow teachers to focus on working with students and where individual skill sets best place them.” The support a paraprofessional can offer for an agriculture education program would greatly improve teacher retention rates by reducing burnout, with the added benefit of bringing an additional educational resource to the students. We must invest in our students by investing in their teachers if we want to create first-class educational opportunities in the agricultural sciences for the next generation.
I truly valued being able to represent Stand for Children on the Illinois Agriculture Education Shortage Task Force. I loved participating in the conversations, reading the research, and developing recommendations to improve how our state can put itself in a position to not only address this problem but set ourselves up to be leaders in sustainable agriculture and agriculture education. Many thanks to the folks at Stand who are advocating for our students and pushing the envelope in education policy reform. It has been an honor to represent that movement. Now it’s time to put these recommendations into action!