Valley Voices

Ag leaders of tomorrow being taught in novel Valley program

Students in the Wonderful Company’s ag prep program.
Students in the Wonderful Company’s ag prep program. Wonderful Company

A class of 124 graduates from Wonderful Ag Career Prep is demonstrating the power of high school that combines college and career preparation in the San Joaquin Valley.

Of this graduating class, 99 young men and women are enrolled in four-year colleges, including 51 who will attend California State University, Fresno — showing the strength of our partnership. Others are heading to CSU Sacramento, CSU Bakersfield, UC Davis, and Cal Poly.

Remarkably, 90 of these students already have associate’s degrees and will begin college as juniors, not freshmen. Several, who are not pursuing four-year degrees, are starting their careers in jobs offering good wages and benefits at The Wonderful Company.

Almost all these students are from low-income households, and few have parents with college degrees. Their achievement is especially noteworthy given the broader context: Across the Valley, fewer than 35 percent of young people graduate high school meeting the requirements for California State University or University of California, and only 18 percent enter a four-year postsecondary institution.

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Fresno State President Joseph Castro Fresno State

On Aug. 11, more than 300 family, friends, and community members gathered in Delano to honor the Ag Prep graduates. The seemingly extraordinary results celebrated in Delano are possible any place where employers and educators join forces to serve students with rigorous academics tied to real-world experience. That’s exactly what is happening in communities across the Valley via Linked Learning, an innovative approach that provides students with deep learning in the classroom and workplace.

Ag Prep is an example of Linked Learning in action. It’s a program operated by The Wonderful Company with seven high schools. Ag Prep connects with young people by combining their interests with the high-tech needs of the agricultural industry. It delivers rigorous academic preparation that makes students eligible for four-year colleges, in tandem with career technical education and on-the-job learning supervised by professionals. Each student has an intensive paid internship at the Wonderful Company, with exposure to career opportunities related to agricultural technology, plant science, business management, and other aspects of the region’s most vital industry.

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Noemi Donoso of The Wonderful Company. The Wonderful Company

Through Linked Learning, young people are introduced to possibilities they could not imagine on their own. Sandra, Susana and Sophia Lopez, triplets from Avenal High School, illustrate this point. After partaking in the Ag Prep program and completing winter internships at Wonderful Pistachios and Almonds, the sisters — who had each planned to pursue other interests — felt empowered to complete four-year degrees. Sandra and Susana are going on to Fresno State to study plant science, and Sophia is heading to Sacramento State to pursue a liberal arts degree.

Their stories demonstrate how Linked Learning can transform lives for young people, families, and communities. Students are motivated to complete high school with both college and a career in mind. Once their passion for a career is ignited, educational and professional experiences feed the flame.

The benefits are real: Independent evaluation shows that students in Linked Learning pathways earn more credits in high school and are more likely to graduate compared with peers in traditional high school programs. They also develop skills needed in today’s workplace. And Linked Learning is shown to be especially effective for students who are underperforming as they enter ninth grade.

These are the reasons why our region should embrace Linked Learning. Ag Prep is just one of many pathways already established in Fresno, Tulare, and Kings counties. These pathways span a range of growth industries — from biomedical and health science to engineering, high tech, and much more. They involve dozens of businesses now — and point the way for others to enter into productive collaborations with school districts, community colleges, and universities.

The San Joaquin Valley needs all its young people to succeed. Its economy requires a qualified workforce. Linked Learning is a tested, practical means to fulfill both these aspirations. We applaud the passionate leaders who worked across traditional boundaries to develop and expand this approach in recent years. We encourage employers and educators throughout the Valley to build on that momentum through new partnerships, making it possible for all communities to celebrate the inspiring achievements of students like those recently honored in Delano.

Noemi Donoso, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Wonderful Education at The Wonderful Company. Joseph I. Castro, Ph.D., M.P.P., is president of California State University, Fresno.