There’s a great deal that’s incredibly foreign about the world depicted in a Times’ piece last May about a junior-senior high school in Hagerstown, Indiana. The school boasts a nationally competitive soil-judging team, its teachers moonlight as farm workers, and the cool kids sport Future Farmers of America jackets. High schoolers there, in eastern Indiana, are taking part in a new district initiative. They’re raising cows, cows that are destined to make the burgers and Sloppy Joes for their own school’s cafeteria.
Steven Yaccino, reporting for The Times, tells us that the school is one of an increasing number in rural areas around the country that are meeting budget challenges, compounded by population loss, by pairing farm-to-cafeteria initiatives with agricultural education, often associated with the F.F.A. In areas, with population outflows and decreasing numbers of family farms, the programs are an effort to shore up local agriculture, offer vocational training for students facing a dicey job market, and fill holes in the school operating budgets. After all, beef the students raise is cheaper than it would be wholesale.
From the perspective of a New Yorker, interest in this sort of story is largely either going to be ideological (gosh, how we love the farm-to-table movement) or anthropological (what a strange world those heartlanders live in). But the mechanisms involved in these enterprises could also be instructive for us in other ways. We might learn or reinforce something we’ve been wrestling with ourselves by reflecting more closely on the work others are doing.
What’s fascinating about the program is the way they are leveraging local economic needs to serve the students and the material shortfall of hard-pressed schools. As we all know, here in New York we have hard-pressed schools and budgetary constraints. In response to the needs of our schools, we’ve seen public-private partnerships in some areas. Just recently, we wrote about the new coding initiative that the DoE is undertaking with Code.org.
Still, we can’t help but wonder if there aren’t ways to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with other, less robust local industries than tech. We need not be talking about agriculture -- though certainly, there are the rooftop greenhouses and apiaries of Brooklyn, which might be interesting partners for our kids. But if we look around more broadly, we’re certain to find fields that could be fruitful. Consider, for example, the opportunity that struggling school arts programs might have had in working with the recently defunct New York City Opera.
The school funding morass isn’t likely to sort itself out any time soon. Our schools are in want and until there is a cultural shift that helps us arrive at better solutions for funding and more equitably organizing our education, we’re going to have to rely largely on the initiative and creativity of teachers and administrators. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we’ve seen the fruit of it in many ways in education across the country with a flourishing of pedagogical innovation. We need to pay attention to these stories and file them away when we find them because a cluttered memory is the wellspring of creativity.