New Soroco ag program designed to create work-ready students
September 29, 2014
Oak Creek — It all started with a meeting between Soroco High School agriculture teacher Jay Whaley and some former district mainstays, and an idea: How can the school make teenagers more employable in the ag industry after they walk the stage with their diplomas?
The goal was to create a program to meet this need, but the idea didn’t go very far until Whaley received an unexpected phone call.
It was district grant writer Karla Setter on the line, asking the longtime agriculture teacher and wrestling coach if he was interested in a grant — a huge grant — that had just come across her desk.
The grant was offered through the United States Department of Agriculture's Secondary, Post-Secondary and Agriculture Challenge Grants program for kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms, and it was worth more than $140,000. The funding is specifically designed to make aspiring students in the agricultural industry more workforce employable when they choose to search for jobs.
The group reconvened with Setter and Colorado Northwestern Community College Rangely to develop an application that proved Soroco was ready to create a concurrent enrollment program with the junior college that gave high schoolers the opportunity to gain college credit and pursue an agriculture science certificate.
Ten months later, the USDA said the $142,844 grant was theirs. With $11,250 in matching grants from the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board, $7,500 from the South Routt School District and a $24,591 CNCC salary match, the idea became a reality with $186,844 in the bank.
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"It was shocking," Whaley said. "We just thought, 'Man, it'd be cool if a kid could graduate high school with a certificate of some kind.'"
Task No. 1 involved finding a concurrent enrollment teacher. The applications poured in, but most of the qualified prospective professors had already committed to other jobs by the time the Soroco job was posted.
At the very same time, Meghan Munter was working on her animal science thesis at Washington State University. She said she had her eye on the job posting but didn't apply until January as she prepared to defend her master's project.
After poring over numerous applications looking for the "right fit," Soroco offered Munter the job.
Creating a self-sustaining program
Since Munter's hiring in the early summer, it’s been a mad dash to get the new program off ground.
Whaley has spent most of the school year surveying the agriculture community in Northwest Colorado to determine skills they think young students need as they begin their careers.
The certificate itself — the one Whaley envisions 18-year-olds will be able to use to fill out job applications in the near future — still is being developed.
"We're trying to figure out what skills we need to be teaching them, which is pretty interesting," Whaley said. "We'll take a look at the survey responses and put it all together. We're thinking 15 to 20 credits, somewhere in that range, maybe more."
As the three-year, one-time grant opens its inaugural year, the goals of the concurrent enrollment program are clear.
The first objective is for students to immediately enter the workforce when they graduate high school. The second is to help students get started on a two-year or three-year associate's degree or a four-year bachelor's degree in an agricultural field.
The program is free to students as long as they pass their courses with a C or better, and the credits are guaranteed to transfer to any public college in Colorado.
"And our hope is that once the grant is over in three years, it'll just be a working motor, and we'll keep on chugging through," Munter said.
An all-encompassing certificate
For a school that routinely produces students who often immediately enter the workforce with ag-related jobs the day after graduation, it irks Whaley when teenagers are expected to go straight to college instead.
"It's one of my pet peeves when people ask, 'Where are you going to college?' instead of 'What is it that you want to do?'" Whaley said. "Not everybody is going to be college bound. We need to create a program that meets the needs of everybody."
That's exactly what the the grant funding is going toward.
The focus is on animal science, where Munter's expertise lies. Other school districts in the region have already shown interest in adding the concurrent enrollment program, schools like North Park, Rangely, Meeker, West Grand and Moffat County.
Classes offered through the program will be wide ranging, hitting on subjects in agriculture economics, welding, small gas engines, leadership, construction and plant sciences.
"I have kids here who leave to go on to be ag lawyers," Whaley said. "I have kids who leave here who work on the ranch. We need to meet all those needs, and that was one of the toughest things to figure out."
Though the program is in its early stages, those involved are optimistic about where the program is headed.
"I really think it will make kids more employable when we're all done," Whaley said. "Anytime you can put something on you resume that says you're certified in something, you're that much more employable."