Agriculture program takes high schoolers out of the traditional classroom and into the greenhouse.

By Heather Riffel Ridge

AustinMcDougal
Austin McDougal

Austin McDougal was in a rut. As a high school junior, he wasn’t sure where his future was headed. “I was struggling with the lack of connection between what I was learning in class and life after graduation,” he says.

McDougal loved being outdoors and considered a career in construction, but he wasn’t sure it was the right fit. After taking a botany class at New Vista High School, his teacher recommended he explore the topic further by signing up for the agriculture program at the Boulder Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC).

“The program gave me an opportunity to explore my options before committing to a degree, and to see what this career would feel like day to day,” McDougal says.

After getting his agriculture-­program certification and graduating from high school in 2009, McDougal and another program graduate spent almost a year working in New Zealand in the horticulture industry. “It was a great opportunity to make some money, travel, and experience other places in the world to see how they run their agricultural systems,” he says.

Upon returning to Colorado, McDougal started taking horticulture classes at Front Range Community College to learn more about soil science while working at a local organic farm. He had found his calling, he says.

Established in 1964 as the district’s vocational school, the Boulder CTEC has undergone a transformation. Where before it was seen as a place to pick up a skill or trade for students not planning on attending college, it now offers college credit to high school students in a variety of different career paths.

Often described as one of Boulder Valley School District’s best-kept secrets, CTEC classes are sometimes too secret, says Andrew Tucker, BVSD’s director of counseling services and student engagement, who wishes more students would avail themselves of CTEC offerings. “Career and technical education is an ideal way to provide students with real-world educational experiences that help them find relevancy in their learning,” Tucker says. “Few courses that I’ve encountered have engaged students more than CTEC classes, including the agri­cul­­ture program.”

“I had no idea what direction I wanted to go in college,” reflects Morgan Briggs (pictured at far right), a 2012 agriculture-program graduate. While her mother always had plants in the house, Briggs didn’t discover her own love of gardening until enrolling in the greenhouse-management class on the advice of a friend.

Intrigued by the “processes of living things,” Briggs is finishing her biology degree at Colorado Mountain College before transferring to Colorado State University next year. “I’ve realized my love for the plant kingdom. I frequently use the knowledge I obtained from the (CTEC) class in my college biology, microbiology and environmental-science classes.”

CTEC’s agriculture program is open to any Boulder Valley School District junior or senior and currently offers two semester-long classes in greenhouse management and urban agriculture. Both courses count for credit at Front Range Community College. Agriculture-program students study subjects such as plant anatomy, propagation and soil science. Outside in the CTEC greenhouse, orchard and chicken coop, students apply their knowledge learning how to grow plants, make floral arrangements and tend chickens.

They also supply flowers and eggs for fundraisers that help them understand the industry’s business management and entrepreneurial sides. Students develop leadership skills through participation in Future Farmers of America, and hone professional skills through interview competitions and résumé-writing workshops.

Classy Carrots

Now an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, Leo Louis can’t remember a time he didn’t love gardening. “I always tell people that if they haven’t eaten a carrot freshly pulled out of the ground, then they don’t even know what a carrot is supposed to taste like.” A 2012 agriculture-­program graduate, Louis is majoring in ethnobotany and frequently stops on his way to classes to photograph the island’s tropical plants. “I’m still not entirely sure what I want to do in the plant world; there are so many possibilities,” he says.

But Louis feels sure his gardening passion will lead to a variety of career paths. According to a recent Purdue University study, an average of 54,000 job openings occur annually in agriculture, from plant propagation, organic gardening and nursery management to food science, plant pathology and natural-resources conservation. Agriculture is one of Colorado’s largest industries, and more than 60 unique degree programs are offered at colleges and universities across the state.

“This industry is booming and there are a lot of different opportunities out there,” says an enthusiastic Mark Frey, who supervises several thousand square feet of growing space as assistant grower for Gulley Greenhouse & Garden Center in Fort Collins. Frey enrolled in the CTEC agriculture program as a junior in 2008. “I saw a career path ahead of me and figured, why not get a head start?”

After graduating from Boulder High School, Frey worked a summer at Sturtz & Copeland and interned at Denver Botanic Gardens. He then enrolled in the horticulture program at Colorado State University. “I saw so many students change their majors several times, which often set them back a year,” he says. With the high costs of tuition, Frey wanted to graduate in four years or less, and credits his time in the CTEC program as a chance to explore a career before committing to college.

McDougal went on to become maintenance foreman for Ecoscape Environmental Design in Boulder and recently decided to pursue a teaching career in agricultural education. He still finds time to give back to CTEC, though, by serving as chair of the advisory board. “It’s really a win-win situation,” he says. “I feel like I get to leave a mark on the future of our industry.”