School profile: Visalia students get 'hands-on' agriculture-based tech

The Fresno BeeMarch 25, 2014 

High school students who like hands-on learning are gravitating to Visalia Technical Early College, a 4-year-old charter school offering agriculture-related career technical education.

Located on 35 acres of the former College of the Sequoias farm, the school has about 150 students in grades 10 through 12, with enrollment expected to double in two years.

"It's for students who are disconnected but with great potential," Principal Victoria Porter said. "The school motto is 'We Learn To Do By Doing,' "

Students also must take at least one class each semester at College of the Sequoias community college — that's where the "early college" comes in.

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Senior Cassie Flores, 17, said she didn't enjoy regular high school but looks forward to coming to VTEC every day.

"I'm the type of person if you do something hands-on, it sticks in my mind," she said as she mucked out the pig sty.

Students choose one of three "pathways": veterinary science, food science or agricultural technology. Construction technology will be offered in two years.

All seniors are issued an iPad and learn to drive a forklift — a résumé and confidence builder — "especially for female students," Porter said.

About half of the incoming students arrive with bad report cards but "project-based learning" changes all that, Porter said.

Students credit VTEC with helping them achieve academic success. "My GPA went from 1.6 to 3.6," said Adam Manuel, 18, who enrolled in his junior year. "I love the small one-on-one way to be with the teachers and the long classes."

Those who must cultivate a garden that produces vegetables for sale or feed and water sheep, pigs and cows are "pretty focused," Porter said.

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Students must take math until they pass the COS math placement test. That's because the school's industry advisory board, composed of leaders in local ag-related businesses, "said you need math for the real world," Porter said. "It's an essential skill."

In December, the school received a Golden Bell award from the California School Boards Association, which are awarded to schools for "innovative and sustainable" programs. The school's innovations include blending early college with career technical education, Porter said.

Last year, the school graduated its first class of 51 seniors. All had college credits and 10 had earned COS certificates — nine as veterinary technicians and one as an agricultural welder.

Chartered by Visalia Unified School District to meet the needs of students who would thrive at a smaller school that teaches career technical skills, VTEC is open to any student from Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Kern counties.

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Students aren't required to be "at risk" of failing regular high school to win admission, and many are there because they can earn college credits before graduating, Porter said.

The focus on agriculture-related education reflects the culture and industry of the region, and industry leaders said they need graduates who are educated in those fields, she said.

The agriculture teachers have had career experience before becoming educators, she said.

Senior Natalie Villegas, 17, enrolled as a sophomore after the principal made a recruiting trip to her former high school.

She greatly prefers VTEC because "you're not in class all day. You actually go outside and work with the animals."

Junior Anni Reynolds, 17, said she likes the campus vibe.

"I love the whole farming thing, and not worrying about what you have to wear," she said.

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The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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