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Commentary: Save LA Unified’s agriculture and horticulture courses

Guest contributor | September 14, 2015

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Garden_7By Martin Blythe

With severe drought and sustainability on the minds of the public and LAUSD Board members, now might be a good time to ask how agriculture and horticulture are faring in Los Angeles area high schools.

The answer is: not well. They are among the programs most at risk of disappearing, just when they might be most useful.

I bring this up now because on September 24–25, 2015, California’s Department of Education intends to approve the draft Next Generation Science Framework for an initial 60-day public review period. In simpler parlance, that’s the new Common Core Science Standards. Some California school districts are rolling it out already. LAUSD is not yet one of them.

What this means is that the existing agriculture and horticulture programs at Venice, North Hollywood, Sylmar and Canoga Park high schools will need to transition to the new standards. Their chances of doing so are not good. Most ag & hort teachers are nearing retirement and they will be difficult to replace.

Do not confuse these fully developed programs with other schools, which have community gardens (Crenshaw, Fremont), or use gardens for electives (Dorsey), or where their gardens are ornamental (Sherman Oaks CES, Culver City) or they are at Career and Transition Center schools (Miller, Widney), or where they are languishing or have disappeared (Hollywood, Bernstein).

A few years ago, things seemed promising: school gardens were springing up everywhere. But, agriculture courses can be expensive to maintain – livestock can chew through $200 of feed in a day – and nowadays they survive by fundraising. Many horticulture courses are either “ornamental horticulture,” i.e. flower arranging, or “culinary arts” — not what you might think of as botanically-based horticulture.

It’s not all bad news of course. Today’s newer “career-ready” pathways (Career and Technical Education and Linked Learning) include classes like Sustainable Agriculture, and, indeed, Grant High School has a new horticulture teacher and program this year.

But it is not enough. Common Core is supposed to emphasize hands-on learning, and so we should look on the new science standards as an opportunity to invest in practical lab-based learning in our high schools.

Yet, if there is one thing we know about education, it’s that new curriculum ideas are never rolled out with hands-on lab work. Instead, we are likely to see more PowerPoint teaching, not high school gardens and farms. Worse, environmental literacy appears to be largely absent from the new science standards.

What we see instead are the abstractions of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Environmental Science disappears and is subsumed under “Life Sciences” (under the “S”), and it is unlikely that agriculture and horticulture will get any attention in STEM.

How did we get to this point with public education in an age of accelerating climate change and food insecurity?

Agriculture is California’s biggest industry, but no one would know it from looking at our school science courses. While obesity and other diseases erode the lives and longevity of our students, increasingly they are alienated from the plant, animal, bird and insect world they depend on. We cannot confine such ideas to elementary schools. Too few high school students grasp the importance of taking responsibility for the environment around them.

Here are the steps we can take.

  • First, our barely surviving agriculture and horticulture programs — largely supported by the county and the federal government — should be properly protected and funded.
  • Second, it would be a good time for the California Science Teachers Association and LAUSD to publicly endorse reviving high school gardens and farms as practical life science laboratories for Common Core.
  • Third, Career Technical Education and Linked Learning must be encouraged to use high school gardens and farms as practical labs for completing laboratory sciences in the “A-G” graduation requirements as they are doing at Grant High School.
  • Fourth, the University of California needs to add agriculture and horticulture/botany to the list of transfer pathways from community colleges.

None of these things will happen unless we as a society commit our schools to providing our students with the means, financially and practically, to making a difference to environmental sustainability in the decades ahead.

Martin Blythe is the parent of an LAUSD 10th grader and school garden volunteer.

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