School develops centre of excellence for ag

Proponents argue such initiatives make rural schools and communities more sustainable and educates public about farming

ALTARIO, Alta. — There is a positive spirit at Altario School where the community and students have come together to promote agriculture.

Located in east-central Alberta, the school has 65 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 and was determined remain a vibrant part of the community.

With the help of the Prairie Land School Division, volunteers and students, it has become an agricultural learning centre of excellence. For many small, rural schools, this approach is one way to stay open and be a part of the larger community where agriculture is the main industry.

The concept of a centre of excellence got off the ground earlier this year when principal Kevin Van Lagen, assistant principal Jamie Roworth and Jill Ference, a parent volunteer and local farmer, proposed it to the school division. The idea was approved and the division paid for a new red barn where the students can raise livestock.

“Some years ago we were asking the question if Altario School could survive. The community was dying and the school was on its way out and we were told we were wasting our time trying to reimagine our community,” said Van Lagen, who has five children in the school.

“Agriculture makes this community tick,” said school superintendent Cam McKeage, who supports the concept of schools of excellence and keeping small centres open.

There are 1,400 students in the division, which covers a large area but supports a number of smaller schools.

Altario School once had about 300 students but as farms got larger and families grew smaller, the numbers shrank.

The school draws students from Kerriemuir, Altario and Compeer but the doors are now open to learners from all over the province.

Becoming a centre of excellence makes rural schools and communities more sustainable as well as educates the public about agriculture, said local MLA Nate Horner.

“A school of excellence dedicated to agriculture is something that can be scaled and copied around the province,” he said.

Credit courses will be offered on agriculture, and a short-term residency program at the learning centre invites students from around the province to learn about agriculture and rural living. They will camp in the area and learn about sustainability, farming and the environment, said Ference.

Besides the barn erected this spring, the school opened space for a community garden that the public and students can work on. The Chinook Applied Research Association also has some test plots there.

The biggest project was raising a newly weaned calf to market weight. Groups of three students took turns feeding and caring for it throughout the school year and it was auctioned off for more than $39,500 to further support the project.

The calf project was a favourite among students, said 14-year-old Kalyn Galloway.

“We’d fight to do chores. It’s really fun and the kids love all the different animals,” she said.

Testing the project started this year and students like Galloway were able to take on agriculture research projects for credit. These were presented in a science fair format with topics like debunking myths about agriculture, studies on farm equipment, tracing a waffle from the grain field to the kitchen, cattle handling and dairy technology.

Galloway’s project took two months to complete when she decided to challenge restaurant claims about the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

With friends and cousins living in the city, the research armed her with information to defend the beef business.

She is going into Grade 9 and would like to see agricultural studies integrated into more of their courses to make it more practical.

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