Teachers develop ag program from ground up

ROLLING MEADOWS, Ill. — Agricultural classes at Rolling Meadows High School are oriented toward teaching life skills and providing opportunities for students.

“We want students to find their passion and give them the tools to go towards their career interest,” said Kirsten Eubanks, who along with Kendall Wright teach agriculture classes and advise the Rolling Meadows FFA Chapter.

Eubanks is in her fourth year of teaching at the suburban school.

“I went to a high school that didn’t offer a program like this, but I have a passion for agriculture so I went to the University of Illinois,” she said. “I really dove into plant sciences and I love companion animals.”

While working at an internship for the Cook County Farm Bureau, Eubanks learned about the program at the high school.

“I was intrigued by it and got to know the principal,” she said. “It aligned exactly with my vision for what I want to do — bring agriculture to a suburban program.”

Wright started her position at Rolling Meadows the year before Eubanks.

“Kendall and I have completely developed this program from the ground up,” Eubanks said. “None of this existed five years ago.”

“I was working on my dissertation and one of my professors sent me the job listing, but it closed that night at midnight,” Wright said. “I couldn’t get a quality application together, so I didn’t apply.”

However the job position was reopened and a different person sent it to Wright for consideration.

“So, I thought maybe someone is telling me that I should apply and when I got here they were very supportive of vision,” Wright said. “This is a place to dream and this is what we dreamt.”

“Kendall developed the agriculture biology curriculum and got it state approved to offer biology credit to students for taking that class,” Eubanks said. “We were the first school in Illinois to be able to offer agriculture biology as a biology credit.”

Agriculture biology is a course for freshmen and there are three versions students can take.

“General is for students not looking for honors credit, the EL version is for students who are learning English as their second language and we have a honors version,” Eubanks said.

In the food science class students learn how to grow food in a suburban area.

“That includes how to properly take care of plants and these students run the greenhouse, high tunnel and raised beds,” Eubanks said. “In our agribusiness class the students learn how to run a business by marketing the products they grow in the greenhouse.”

A sustainable urban agriculture class is offered as dual credit through the College of DuPage and students receive three free college credits by taking this class.

“Students learn how to sustainably grow food and we focus a lot on hydroponics and aquaponics,” Eubanks said. “We have a giant living wall — an aquaponics system in the classroom that my class designed and the workshop students built for us.”

Damian Gil-Lara got involved with the Rolling Meadows FFA Chapter by becoming a member of the quiz bowl team.

“That was a lot of fun and we went to the state contest,” he said. “That’s when I applied for a job to work in the greenhouse and I really like it because it is hands on.”

Gil-Lara, the chapter secretary, and Nora Tosic received a grant from Corteva Agriscience that they are going to use to provide hydroponic systems to low-income members of the community.

“We’re hoping to provide systems to around 30 families,” said Tosic, who is a sophomore. “We’re testing hydroponic systems to find one that is the most efficient and easy to set up.”

The students are planning an informational night to explain the process.

“We’re going to make videos in eight languages‚” Tosic said. “We’re testing basil and lettuce because they are the easiest to grow, but as long as in doesn’t have a woody stem, you can grow anything in a hydroponics system.”

Tessa Knepper is the president of the Rolling Meadows FFA Chapter that was started in 2019 and now includes about 200 members.

“The chapter was pretty minimal for the first two years because of COVID,” Eubanks said. “Tessa is one of two officers last year that completely rebuilt the chapter.”

Chapter members are involved in several community service projects including planting a prairie near the school’s football fields and packing meals for the Feed My Starving Children program.

Knepper has attended both the state and national FFA conventions.

“I think we met people from almost all 50 states at the national convention,” she said. “It was so much fun.”

Vet Science at the school has developed into three courses.

“Vet Science 1 focuses on healthy animals and students learn how to handle animals safely and take vital signs,” Wright said.

“The second course is about what to do when the animals come in sick or injured,” she said. “Today we wrapped up CPR certification for dogs, which is more complicated than for humans because you have to evaluate the chest shape to know where to put your hand for pushing.”

In this class, students learn how to prep an animal for surgery, suturing, vaccinating, drawing blood and urine and fecal analysis.

“They learn all the things they need to be successful as a veterinarian assistant,” Wright said.

“We’re piloting our Capstone Veterinary Assisting program this year and we’re working to become certified through the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America to be able to offer veterinary assistant credentials,” she said.

Students will be placed with one of 11 partners that include small animal clinics, an exotic veterinarian, zoos and a therapeutic horse riding program.

“All of the hours they do there can be put towards their vet school application,” Wright said. “Students must have 600 hours at a vet clinic to apply to veterinarian school.”

Training service and therapy dogs is also part of the program at Rolling Meadows High School.

“Our vice principal had a therapy dog, and as soon as I saw her dog, I said you need to put me in contact with the trainer because I need this for our program,” Wright said.

The school partners with the Masonic Association of Service and Therapy Dogs and started the class with five dogs and eight people in the fall of 2019.

“We wanted a way to bring animals into the building for Vet Science, but also for our students to have a way to decompress and relax,” Wright said.

“It has exploded and we are now at 30 certified dogs and 40 certified people that include students, staff and community members,” she said.

The therapy dogs go to events at school such as blood drives and testing days.

“This year, a student was very upset on the SAT testing day, so we brought a therapy dog to her and she sat with the dog for a few minutes and then she was OK and she went back and tested,” Wright said.

“This semester, a student did research with the therapy dogs on how they impacted blood pressure before exams,” she said. “And we were recently asked to go to another school with the dogs for a staff appreciation program.”

Ben Biazo is a sophomore and one of the student handlers for the therapy dogs.

“I really love this project because it is a way to get more involved in the community,” he said. “It is awesome to see how the therapy dogs help people and relieve stress or cheer them up, especially with the hospital visits.”

Biazo recently competed in the state FFA Veterinary Science Career Development Event, where he placed 20th out of over 150 students.

“Ben is almost ready for the Capstone program,” Wright said.

Addison Balla saw a poster at school about the therapy dog program.

“As soon as I went to the first meeting, I knew I needed to do this and it has been so much fun,” the high school freshman said.

“I’m really proud of this program,” Eubanks said. “I’m so excited to see the amount of growth and interest the students have shown.”