New charter school set to open this summer

At a sprawling farm in Morgantown, hundreds of acres of farmland, pastures and forests will give students of a new online charter school a place to get hands-on learning experience.

Gravel and dirt paths wind through fields, forests and ponds, providing access across the massive, 600-acre property. Students interested in forestry will be able to study the wooded areas and how those change over time. Creeks running through the property will provide locations for studying the effects of erosion on dirt banks. Students will be able to observe a variety of plants and wildlife at two wetlands on the property. And students studying farming will have access to livestock and 200 acres of farmland.

The Indiana Agriculture & Technology School will begin classes in July, using the farm in Morgantown to provide in-person lessons to students across the state enrolled in the online school.

Students will do much of their traditional coursework online, but also will make trips to the farm for interactive projects that will tie in with their classes, said Keith Marsh, the executive director of the school. Students will be able to graduate with any of the three standard high school diplomas offered in Indiana. Most of the agriculture or technology classes will be done as elective courses.

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“The goal is to prepare them for the workforce,” he said.

Students enrolled in the school, which covers grades 7 through 12, will make trips to the farm once a month for activities ranging from studying one of the two wetlands at the farm to learning how to fly drones to working with newborn cattle.

The visits to the farm aren’t mandatory and won’t be graded, but the lessons will tie in to classes the students are enrolled in as well as careers they could pursue after high school or college, Marsh said.

While agriculture is the focus of the program, what students will be able to learn won’t be tied to that. The charter school is intended to prepare students for a variety of careers beyond farming, with courses covering topics ranging from forestry and conservation to aviation and drone certification classes, said Thomas Sutherlin, the director of enrollment.

But as farmers across the country age, there is a need for a younger generation of workers to step up and take their place, Sutherlin said.

The school is a partnership between a recently formed nonprofit, Indiana Virtual Agriculture Academy, and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Schools, which is the charter school’s sponsor. That partnership will give Indian Creek students the opportunity to do activities and projects at the site.

Under state law, charter schools have to have an authorizing agent, which can be a local government, such as a school district, a college or a mayor. That group helps oversee the charter school, including student performance and finances, reports information to the state and can decide that a charter school should be shut down. The charter school will be run by the nonprofit organization, the Indiana Virtual Agricultural Academy, which is governed by a five-person board, with members appointed by the nonprofit, the school district and the farm they work with.

Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school officials said they wanted to get involved because of the additional opportunities and curriculum it can offer students and how its own mission and values align with those of the charter school. With the farm being less than 10 miles away from the Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools campus, students also would have access to the farm campus and could be involved in a year-round project-based education, officials said.

“Our rural school corporation is very agrarian, very agriculture based,” Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson Schools Superintendent Tim Edsell said in a news release. “We have a strong FFA and students interested in agriculture, but no curriculum specific enough to meet their needs. If we can encourage more students across the state to enter agribusiness, our farms can produce more crops and create a more stable economy. Not to mention, we help set the students up for a successful future.”

The program is the first of its kind in Indiana, and the creators haven’t found anything comparable in other states, Marsh said.

The 600-acre property is split equally between farmland, pastures and forest, with two wetlands and nine ponds. Some of the land is leased to a local farm that grows soybeans and corn and has about 100 cows on the property.

The school has about 35 students registered so far, but officials expect registrations to increase later this spring as parents begin making decisions about what school their child is going to attend next school year, Marsh said.

The goal is to have about 550 students, but officials don’t ever want to top 1,000. Keeping the numbers lower will allow them to maintain better connections with their students, he said.

Accountability for students will be key, Marsh said.

To help keep students on track, the charter school has hired counselors who will be monitoring students’ progress, making sure they are doing at least four hours of schoolwork each day and moving along in their lessons. Those counselors will be able work with students to make sure they are managing their time appropriately, and should a student get behind, reach out to the family to let them know, Marsh said.

Classes will run July 30 to June 1, with four nine-week semesters divided by two-week breaks. Regional testings will be set up to administer the state’s ISTEP test, he said.

The charter school also is partnering with Ivy Tech Community College to provide dual-enrollment classes for qualifying students, who could earn up to two-years of college credits as juniors and seniors in high school, Marsh said.

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Here is a look at the Indiana Agriculture & Technology School, opening later this year:

What: An online charter school that also operates a farm in Morgantown where students can get hands-on experience in multiple subjects.

Who: Grades: 7-12

Enrollment: Up to 160 students per grade level

Farm campus: 1982 S. Morgantown Road, Morgantown