School profile: Agriculture, technology reign at Minarets High

The Fresno BeeMarch 25, 2014 

At the end of one Minarets High School class period, "Rock and Roll All Nite" trumpets through the loudspeakers at the eastern Madera County school.

Administrators at the combined high school-charter school, just 5 years old, encourage teachers and students to walk to the beat of a different tune.

Minarets has already built some hype, and strong career technical education programs are part of the buzz, school officials say.

"When I was going to school, the general belief was you went to four years of school and you were pretty much assured a career in some kind of professional career path ... that is just not the case anymore," said Bob Nelson, superintendent of Chawanakee Unified School District, which has about 1,200 students, including Minarets.

The school was founded with a focus on two career pathways: Ag and natural resources, and arts, media and entertainment, Principal Michael Niehoff said.

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A big addition this school year was the opening of the $4.2 million Silkwood Bigelow Center for Ag Tech Design -- named in honor of the leaders of Ponderosa Telephone in O'Neals who donated $2.1 million for its construction. Students use the building for ag and power mechanics programs and utilize welding bays, plasma and laser cutters, 3-D printers and robotic routers.

The school farm and ag laboratory is also expanding, supported by a $50,000 grant from the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians in Coarsegold. A greenhouse and aquaponics system -- where waste from fish helps fertilize plants -- were added this school year.

And the farm gets a lot of use. All science classes are ag sciences, except for physics.

Students have eight class periods, which means seniors have as many as six electives. Technology-focused electives include hardware/software, computer programming/game design, media production, graphic design and digital music recording and production.

"Ultimately, we are preparing kids for jobs that don't even exist yet in a lot of cases," said Daniel Ching, director of charter and international programs.

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Other career-focused electives include animal anatomy and physiology, and a wildland fire science class where students train on a real fire truck that was donated to the school.

"You're getting prepared for a real-world job," said freshman Garritt Press after doing some welding at Minarets. "As soon as you're out of here, you can practically go get a job at a welding company."

"I just like the hands-on activities you get to do," added freshman Jacob Kuiper. "You get to learn a lot more and you can develop a fondness for what you're doing."

Minarets still offers classes for the college-bound student, but there's a focus on project-based learning and producing things in the classroom that can be utilized, Niehoff said. Teachers are more like project facilitators than information providers, he said.

All students are given a laptop or iPad, and students often submit school projects online. That audience helps homework feel more like a job, media instructor Patrick Wilson said.

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With only a few graduating classes, Minarets has little historical data to report. The class of 2012 started with 27 ninth-graders and graduated 62; in 2013, 77 graduated out of a freshman class four years earlier of 90. This year, the graduating class will be about 125 -- the same number as the starting freshman class in 2009, Niehoff said.

The benefits of project-based learning and career-technical education extend beyond standardized test scores.

"The key thing for us is -- we're just trying to do stuff that we know hooks kids," Nelson said. "We figure if we can get them passionate about school, then everything else falls into place."

LIST OF PROGRAMS: High school ROPs, community college CTEs

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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