Cleveland school seeks agriculture opportunities for students

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Two students and a teacher work on a soil experiment.
Ky’layaa Dobson and Brianah Adams, both seniors at East Technical High School, in Cleveland, work on a soil experiment with their teacher, Alys Virzi, Feb. 21. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

*Gov. Mike DeWine ordered that all K-12 schools in Ohio close to students from the end of the school day March 16 through at least April 3 due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Alys Virzi, the agriculture teacher for East Technical High School, told Farm and Dairy that her students have homework packets and online assignments to work on for now.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Ky’layaa Dobson and Brianah Adams, both seniors at East Technical High School, in Cleveland, sit behind a long table and shake mason jars filled with water and soil samples from around the high school.

Fluorescent lights and light from outside coming through the blinds illuminates tanks around the edge of the room with fish, snakes, turtles and other animals. Alys Virzi, the teacher of the class, sits across from the two students at the table with her own mason jar. They are in the middle of an experiment designed to show the differences between soil types.

This environmental science class is Dobson’s and Adams’s final semester in an agribusiness career-technical education (CTE) pathway.

Restructure

The pathway is one of many career and technical options the Cleveland Metropolitan School District has across its schools.

“All of the high schools have some kind of career focus,” said Anthony Battaglia, director for career and college readiness with the district.

The district began to restructure in 2009, going to open enrollment and redesigning schools based on performance.

The district created Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools in 2012, as it continued to face challenges with enrollment and graduation rates. Part of the plan was to go to a portfolio model, which involves having lots of smaller schools with more focused options. East Tech has pathways in culinary arts and agribusiness.

“Agriculture is one of the most in-demand industries in the state,” Battaglia said.

Through CTE pathways, the district is trying to give students access to that industry.

Goals

But not all of the students in the agribusiness pathway are planning on careers in agriculture.

Adams plans to study acting in college. Dobson wants to run her own bakery some day and plans to study hospitality management.

“For CTE, one of the things we focus on is just employability in general,” Virzi said.

This includes soft skills that can benefit students in any field, like being on time and following instructions, in addition to agriculture-related skills.

Last semester, Dobson and Adams took an agribusiness class. The skills that students learn in that class, like creating business plans and understanding management styles, are transferable to other types of businesses as well, Virzi said.

“It will really give me the courage for what I want to do when I get out of college,” Dobson said.

Impact

The district’s college enrollment rate has declined in recent years, possibly because of high tuition rates and a decrease in grant funding available for students in the state, a 2019 progress report notes, but more students are taking college-level courses, and the graduation rate has improved.

The district’s four-year graduation rate increased from 59.3% in the 2011-2012 school year to 78.2% in the 2017-2018 school year, the report shows.

“The gap between Cleveland’s students and their peers state-wide is lessening in many areas,” said Meghann Marnecheck, executive director for the Cleveland Transformation Alliance, an organization formed to track the plan’s progress.

While the district’s graduation rates overall are still about 7% below the state average, rates for African American students and Hispanic students are both above the state average, Marnecheck noted.

Battaglia said that students in the district’s CTE program have a higher graduation rate, at 92%, than students in the district overall.

While some of the high schools have more informal career or technical options, the agribusiness program at East Tech is one of the official CTE pathways that the district offers.

Virzi teaches four classes in the agribusiness program at East Tech. Ninth and 10th graders take animal and plant science, 10th and 11th graders take science and technology in food and 12th graders take business management for agriculture and environmental science for agriculture and natural resources.

Teachers

This is Virzi’s second year at East Tech. She has 20 years of experience in agriculture and horticulture and has helped run farming programs and has taught with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities and the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland.

“I just think urban farming and growing food in the city is one of the most important things that we can teach people,” Virzi said.

She was the third agriculture teacher at East Tech in three years. The teacher who officially started the CTE program in the 2017-2018 school year was promoted to a position in the district’s central office after just one year. This made things difficult at first.

“I think there was some mistrust just because of the fact that they had changed staff in this position,” Virzi said.

Some students thought Virzi would leave, too. But she came back. The second year has been easier so far.

“I wasn’t going to leave,” she said.

Next steps

The district plans to consolidate three other schools at East Tech next year, including Washington Park Environmental Studies Academy, which has programs in horticulture and animal science. This move will consolidate the agriculture programs at East Tech and Washington Park.

The 2019 progress report shows that enrollment in both the district and charter schools has decreased in the last few years. Census data also shows that Cleveland’s population as a whole went down by about 3% from 2010 to 2018.

“We need to not have buildings that operate below capacity,” Battaglia said. “It’s not efficient.”

Virzi is hoping to add more hands-on experiences, like the soil sampling experiment and other projects, as she gets her bearings in the program. She will also start advising an FFA program for East Tech next year.

Assessment

Students in the program have to take online state assessments at the beginning and end of the year. CTE program managers also evaluate programs with teachers and look for areas to improve both informally and formally.

The district overall is still working on meeting state-level requirements and assessments. As a district, Battaglia said the CTE programs are at a 25% proficiency on the assessments, which is up from 10% two years ago.

“We’re growing pretty rapidly now that we understand what they’re asking for,” he said.

The agribusiness program, specifically, is still developing. Teaching agriculture in an urban area, like Cleveland, comes with its own challenges, since the industry can take a different form in urban areas than in rural areas.

As the industry in Cleveland grows, the district wants students to be “primed for opportunity, but also prepared for jobs outside the region even if their experience looks a little different,” Battaglia said.

Community

That’s part of why Virzi is hoping to continue developing connections in the community.

Virzi takes students on field trips and brings guests in from local businesses, including Rid-All Green Partnership; Saucisson, a butcher shop in Cleveland; and Food Depot to Health, a nonprofit that teaches about nutrition.

Some of these local businesses hire people from the area, so students who have a background in food and plant science could eventually find jobs with them. Virzi hopes the program will help students see that as a possibility and reinforce to them that the program can be valuable.

“A lot of our kids don’t know that it’s a possibility to get into that field just in our own area,” Virzi said. “You don’t have to go to a different county to work in agriculture.”

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