SCOTT SIMON, host:
111th and Pulaski in Chicago is just about as urban as bus exhaust. There's a pizza parlor on one corner. Heavy trucks trundle past carrying heavy things like cars, steel, and cement. But if you listen carefully to the cacophony of car horns and bus splats, you might hear Lucy chomping on grass like a pig, which she is. A 350-pound and then some Vietnamese pot-bellied pig who is also the resident mascot of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, a public high school and a 72-acre working farm where they grow corn, milk cows, farm fish, and run a farm stand where they sell their own apples, pickles, and cookies all on the Southwest Side of Chicago. But first and last, it is a public high school with students clustering to gossip on a fence rail outside and a teacher running out to break it up.
Dr. JOAN WHITE (Animal Science Instructor, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences): That doesn't look like you're doing anything productive. You're getting the hose? It takes five of you to sit there and wait for it? Go in.
SIMON: Dr. Joan White is the school's teaching veterinarian.
Dr. WHITE: We have one dairy cow, and then we have a Black Angus that was born on the farm here last year. The two horses are Paint Horses that were donated. The older one is Delilah(ph) who - she has a navicular disease, which is arthritis of the front legs, and Splash has Wobbler's Syndrome, and when he turns a corner he stumbles a bit. So, both of them would have headed somewhere bad. And this is a great place for them because we use them for teaching husbandry, teaching anatomy, teaching basic skills.
SIMON: There are 600 students at Ag High, as it's called. It was opened in 1985, one of about half a dozen urban agricultural high schools in the country and one of the first steps toward Chicago's long effort to rejuvenate its public schools with innovation and experiment. Students have to apply to be selected, and some travel more than an hour each way each day. They take the full academic load of English, History, Science, and language classes, but they also spend part of the day in classes and enterprises that are distinct to Ag High, like...
(Soundbite of running water)
SIMON: Tending the greenhouse which right now is planted with hundreds of poinsettias that will bloom in time for the holiday season and be sold at the school's farm stand. They also mind five tanks of tilapia. The fish themselves will be sold to restaurants. And the little flecks of waste that they swirl through their tank is sprinkled over basil plants that are harvested to make pesto produced by the school and sold at their farm stand. Remember when schools used to have bake sales? Ag High students sell pesto along with...
Ms. KRYSTAL ANDERSON (Student, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences): Applesauce, buttered pickles, and salsa. And we do zucchini bread in there and little cakes and cookies, and we go out there and sell it in the farm stand.
SIMON: That's Krystal Anderson, a junior who plans to become a food inspector. She said the high school also isn't just about growing and baking, but the business of selling it, which is the basis of real agriculture from a bean field to the Chicago Board of Trade. She's partnered with her friend Heather to put out their own line of products.
Ms. ANDERSON: It's called K&H Goods. So we label it, we decide what are we going to be making, and how much are we going to make, and how much are we going to be selling the product. That's it.
SIMON: So if you can learn how to run a farm stand...
Ms. ANDERSON: Right.
SIMON: That helps you...
Ms. ANDERSON: Right. Right now that's our main theme, like, how to invest, what are we going to invest in, how much your income and outcome of it. It's a good experience 'cause that's what you'll be needing in life as well, how to manage your money, probably.
(Soundbite of students' chatter)
SIMON: In Richard Johnson's Ag finance class, students debate what to sell at the school's farm stand store the way that some students argue about rap versus hip-hop.
Unidentified Student #1: Pumpkin pies are filthy. Sweet potato pie would be better.
Unidentified Student #2: Are you going to sell...
Unidentified Student #3: You could either do pumpkin or sweet potato. I'm tired of eating every day zucchini.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of loudspeaker announcement)
Mr. WILLIAM HOOK (Principal, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences): Hi, good morning, teachers, staff and students. It's time for daily announcements.
SIMON: Of course Ag High is a working school as well as a working farm enterprise, and most of the daily announcements that principal William Hook blares through the hallways could be transported into more traditional schools.
(Soundbite of loudspeaker announcement)
Mr. HOOK: Finally, all students, you should check the detention lists posted at the entry. There will be detention on Saturday starting this week. You must meet at the barn by 8 a.m. and work for the duration of your detention. Thank you and have a good day.
SIMON: But Principal Hook thinks the mix they offer of not only city and country, but academics and enterprise, classroom and street cred - though in this case field cred - strikes a balance in learning.
Mr. HOOK: I think there's this old way of thinking that you have, you know, a two-tiered education. You have the students who should be on the college track. Then you also have the students who should be on the vocational track. But I think if we do one thing here, we really show that you can do both. You'll have students out in sixth period they'll be in pre-calculus class, and in the seventh period they're out laying sod.
SIMON: By the time we sat down with a group of students who'd been selected by the school, a number of these city kids had confessed that it hadn't been their life's ambition to attend an agricultural high school. Several said that their parents were eager for them to apply because the school is academically distinguished and it's notably safe. We saw a metal detector at the school entrance, but it didn't seem to be in use. Ryan Shelton is one of those students who needed to be won over by Ag High.
Mr. RYAN SHELTON (Student, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences): When I first came to this school, I was very adamant about it. I didn't want to do it at all. But now that I am here, and I've been here for quite some time, you just adapt to it.
SIMON: Ryan hopes to go on to college in New York and become an actor on Broadway.
Mr. SHELTON: I really think that agriculture has given me skills that I could never have anywhere else. For one, I'm a more well-rounded person. And when you're in that field of entertainment, one of the things that people look at is, you know, whether you have that quality, that "it" factor, well-rounded, diverse.
SIMON: Dantrell Cotton is a junior who says school has changed the way he sees the world. What more can a school do than that?
Mr. DANTRELL COTTON (Student, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences): Ag is all around us. It branches off to hundreds of thousands of occupations. And agriculture is one of the industries that no matter what happens economically, that's one industry that remains the same. And it's the future. Agriculture is the future.
SIMON: Some of the students confide that friends back home in their urban neighborhoods mock them as farmers. Those friends probably don't understand how modern, scientific, and cosmopolitan an enterprise farming is these days. Melissa Nelson is a junior at Ag High.
Ms. MELISSA NELSON (Student, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences): The school is so different and you get so many different opportunities from it that I don't care if they're like, oh, you go to a farm school. Yeah, I do.
SIMON: The farm stand run by the school has many developmentally challenged students working the shelves and helping customers.
Unidentified Developmentally Challenged Student: The pumpkin is ready.
Unidentified Man: I'm sorry?
Unidentified Developmentally Challenged Student: The pumpkin, you see, the little pumpkins.
Unidentified Woman: The pumpkin bread is not in yet.
Unidentified Man: Oh, the pumpkin bread is - they're baking this morning...
SIMON: The students hold jobs with actual responsibility at Ag High. The farm stand usually earns about $300 a day on the weekends. The money goes into the school's general fund. The teacher who oversees the stand, Richard Johnson, used to run a family lawnmower business. When Chicago Public Schools began to open the door for teachers with professional backgrounds in business, arts, or the military, Mr. Johnson signed on. He now holds forth in what may be the only Chicago public high school with bales of hay for sale, lots of bales. A customer wanted to just rent some for a Halloween party. Some Ag students saw an opportunity.
Mr. RICHARD JOHNSON (Teacher, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences): So the kids - after they made the deal, they called me and they told me - they said, hey, Mr. Johnson, we got $45, and they're bringing them back on Wednesday. This is entrepreneurship at its best. This isn't like working at a White Castle where you're trained to do one thing. You have to make decisions. I think the skills we teach, the entrepreneurial skills, they transcend not only agriculture. It covers all walks of life.
SIMON: By the way, there is one especially posh local restaurant that buys tilapia from Ag High, but the school won't disclose the name. It seems the chef doesn't want customers to know that the fish in their tilapia with smoked mushroom aioli and ginger-flavored vegetables isn't plucked fresh from the Nile but trucked in all the way from exotic 111th street.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: Is there a particularly interesting vocational-type school that's near you? If you'd like to tell us about it, come to our blog, npr.org/soapbox.