WATERLOO, Ill. (AP) — When leaders of Gibault Catholic High School agreed to start an agriculture program for the 2012-13 school year, they knew there was a group of students likely to be interested.
But Principal Russ Hart said he had no idea that the program would take root and grow so quickly.
"We had 20 spots available in the program the first year and we're literally overfilled," Hart said. "We have 24 this year and that number is probably going to double next year."
Many of the students come from farming families in the Waterloo area and they're thrilled to be able to prepare themselves to study agriculture in college.
"I was amazed that it came together quite quickly," said Gibault senior Matt Schreder, of Hecker. "My first three years here we had a gardening club. But this is much more intensive. We're learning about all sorts of things, taking field trips and getting our hands dirty doing them ourselves."
Schreder, whose family is in the hog farming business, said he hopes the experience helps prepare him to study agriculture in college. He has plans to attend the University of Illinois, Illinois State or Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
Dean Dittmar, program adviser for Illinois Agricultural Education, an organization that helps schools develop and run their agricultural curriculum, said Gibault's effort is the largest agricultural program at a private high school in the state.
"It's great that these kids are getting this opportunity in a private school setting," Dittmar said.
Agriculture education isn't all about how to plant beans or corn or how to raise pigs or cattle, Dittmar said. He said in includes food research, production and handling that is done by large companies like Cargill and Monsanto.
Hart said one of the biggest obstacles to starting the program was finding a qualified teacher to run the program. Little did he know he had an expert in the agriculture industry in the school building.
Science teacher Carolyn Kish not only holds a degree in agriculture, she worked in animal husbandry before becoming a mom which required she spend less time away from home.
"It's great to see the kids so excited about the program and we look forward to a lot of interesting projects and trips."
Last week, the students took soil samples from all over the Gibault campus to take to a lab for analysis. Next month they plan to build a donated greenhouse on campus.
Hart credited the fast start to help from other schools and the Red Bud Future Farmers of America Association.
"This isn't like athletics where, at the high school level, the goal is to run over the competition," Hart said. "When it comes to learning, everyone is willing to help each other. And we are very grateful for the assistance we have received."
Information from: Belleville News-Democrat, http://www.bnd.com