For years, Bonnie Goehring has lived on a farm in the Blackhawk School District, where her three children and several of her grandchildren studied agricultural science at the high school.
But her granddaughter Jennifer will be the first in her family unable to take the same courses as her father and brothers.
The Blackhawk school board voted in March 2012 to eliminate its vocational agricultural science program, effective for the upcoming school year.
The program included courses in subjects such as horticultural studies, food sciences and landscaping. Some students took only one or a few courses as electives, while others took all of the courses and completed the agricultural program.
School officials said the cut was necessary for academic reasons. Students could take agricultural science in place of biology, and the science in the agricultural curriculum at Blackhawk used to be similar enough to the material on the 11th-grade science Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exam. Now that the state has shifted to a required Keystone biology exam, the material covered in the agricultural science program is not enough to prepare students for the state biology exam.
Students who wish to pursue a related curriculum have the opportunity to do so at the nearby Beaver County Career and Technical Center, which offers courses in greenhouse and landscaping and machine tool technology, Blackhawk superintendent Michelle Miller said. Blackhawk also will pay for students to attend an agricultural program in neighboring Mohawk School District.
Proponents of Blackhawk's agricultural program, however, said it will be sorely missed and that ending the agricultural education will hurt students' job prospects.
Blackhawk, in the northwestern part of Beaver County, encompasses 17,000 people and 65 square miles and has both suburban and rural areas. The high school, which houses grades 8-12, has an enrollment of about 1,000.
When the vote was taken to eliminate the agricultural science program, 104 students were taking some type of agricultural science course, but the number of students who completed the agricultural program was much smaller. Students are considered to have completed the program by taking all of the agricultural classes and qualifying to take a state agricultural exam by the end of their senior year. The district had two students complete the program in 2009-10, three in 2010-11 and six in 2011-12, Ms. Miller said.
The agricultural science curriculum was designed to get students away from the blackboard and into the field while instilling a work ethic and teaching practical skills.
Students taking agricultural classes have raised tilapia fish, made bread from grain they grew, learned how to fix an engine and cultivated flowers in a greenhouse, said Howard Leslie, who recently retired after teaching agricultural sciences at Blackhawk for almost 40 years.
"It's a very hands-on course, and I think it's very important because a lot of kids don't want to sit in a classroom," said Jennifer Goehring, who will be a senior at Blackhawk in the fall.
"The kids in there really care about taking something from nothing ... . Whether it be flowers or fixing an engine or construction, it's very passionate work."
There is also a lively debate about whether cutting this program will hurt students' job prospects after graduation. School board member Bob Clendennen said that most of the farming in Blackhawk is not done for profit as a sole source of income.
However, supporters of the program contend that preparation for farming jobs is only a small aspect of why students take agricultural science courses.
Over the years, students have used the skills they learned in agricultural science to become mechanics, veterinarians and landscapers, Mr. Leslie said. Construction and manufacturing encompass 17.4 percent of Beaver County's industry.
Ms. Goehring said that two of her grandsons who took agriculture science classes at Blackhawk now work in the tree-cutting business and they learned a great deal about work ethic and how to care for trees and other plants through the program. According to Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, 88.55 percent of agriculture-cluster students were placed in jobs after graduation last year.
The new state testing requirements, however, remain a significant hurdle to overcome. To hire a replacement for the retiring Mr. Leslie, the district would want a teacher certified in both agricultural science and biology so that the course could still be taken in place of biology. Such dual certification is unusual, with two or three teachers graduating in Pennsylvania with those credentials, Ms. Miller said.
In addition, it would cost the district $87,365 to reinstate the program at this point, which includes the salary and benefits of a new teacher and supplies.
Some school board members believed that students were beginning to lose interest in the program as the number of students who completed the agriculture science program has been low for the last three years.
"We've put hours and hours of work into trying to get this back," Jennifer said. "We've reached out as much as you possibly can, and they're really not paying attention at all."
When Jennifer heard that the program would be discontinued, she said, "I couldn't believe it. The agricultural programs are older than the school. A lot of kids say that if it wasn't for the program, they wouldn't have graduated."
Monica Disare: email@example.com or 412-263-1852.