Cultivating an (Agri)culture: Chief Academic Officer Keith Marsh discusses new school for agriculture for students grades 7-12 offers online and hands-on learning


Michelle Yin

Chief Academic Officer of the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School Keith Marsh

Michelle Yin

Indiana Agriculture and Technology School opened July 30. It has an online course and physical learning at a Monroe County farm targeted towards students in grades 7-12. It’s coursework is eligible for Core 40, Core 40 with Academic Honors and Core 40 with Technical Honors diplomas.

Why was the Indiana Agriculture and Technology School (IATS) founded?

There’s a big business in agriculture, and I don’t think people really realize how big it is in Indiana; it’s like a 30 billion dollar business. There’s an aging population with the agriculture community, the median age is around 64, so it’s a generational thing. We want to start to expose young people, particularly high school students, in the field of agriculture, and it’s not just farming, it’s sciences, it’s business, financial, chemical pesticides, animal science, animal vet. It gives us an opportunity to expose that field with our students. That’s our main focus, and technology’s a big part of the agriculture business. People don’t really realize that as well, although we visited a farm down in Batesville, Indiana, where we’re looking to partner with Michaela Farms-it’s run by the Sisters St Francis: Oldenburg-and that’s a traditional farm, very organic, and it’s a different way of farming. We want to expose the kids to all levels of agriculture, that’s why we started this school.

How would you attract students to sign up for the course?

It’s educating them. It’s first getting them to know that we’re out there and we’re available for them as an option. Once we start talking to them, and we’ve done a lot of presentations and lot of press media and things like this is how we’re getting the word out and attracting our students. Once we get in front of them, we start talking about those opportunities then their interest goes a lot higher and they eventually enroll. It’s interesting-you know, I’ve been in education for a long time. I opened different schools, I opened Guerin Catholic School, founded and started that school, so I’ve seen (education) in all different aspects. This one’s a little bit different in the fact that agriculture is our main focus. We look at other career programs. We look at-if someone wants to go into aviation, they want to go into welding, they want to go into construction management-we look at other careers as well but it’s getting people to understand that agriculture is a big business. When it comes to mechanical aspects of it, tractors and farm machineries are so high-tech, it’s hard to understand how they work and it takes a specific skill managing and care for those. It’s getting families and kids to know, “Hey, we’re here. Come and learn and listen to what we have to offer.”

How long will the online course take?

It’s a normal school year. We’re underneath the Indiana Department of Education, so we’re recognized to them. We have a school corporation number, so we’re like Carmel school district, Lawrence Township, you know. Students come on board and they take the courses that align to the Indiana standards, so you graduate with a Core 40, Core 40 Honors, Core 40 Technical, so we do a traditional school calendar year. Most virtual schools go 365 (days a year), they go year-round, their pacing’s a lot different. It’s kind of, you can work as fast as you want, you can skip days. We are set on a school calendar because we want kids to be proficient and constantly on track with their academic work because we can track them, we can see how they’re doing, and we can make decisions on where they’re at academically. It’s traditional in that sense, but they can pace how they work that day. We require minimum four hours a day learning. In a typical school day, you take out your passing periods and your lunch and all that, it’s around four to six hours academic work, so that’s what we’re telling our students, you have to put in a minimum, you can put in as much as you want, but if you’re on track and focused you can get the work done very well. Then they decide how they want to learn it. If they’re a morning learner, or an evening learner, they can pick but they have to be on the days we’re scheduled. It’s traditional in that way, but it’s very rigorous. We have dual enrollment classes that kids can take through Ivy Tech and earn credit. They could actually knock a year out of college if they hit that program hard. We have AP courses, we offer five languages. We offer French, German, Spanish, Latin and Chinese, so in a virtual program we can expand more of our course offerings. We use Indiana-licensed teachers to teach the course.

How would an AP course be different from a regular Core 40 course?

It’s no different. It’s like if you took an Advanced Placement course in high school, it’s the same as if you taken it in a brick-and-mortar school. In a virtual (environment), you’re really controlling your learning. That’s where a lot of kids like it, because a lot of times-and I was a high school principal in a brick-and-mortar (school), I’ve lived both those worlds. The thing about a virtual (environment) was the kids controlled more, it’s more personalized how we develop their learning plan. It’s more to their learning ability, and they manage that. You have to be very focused to do this but a majority of kids enrolling are pretty strong students. A lot of them are home-schooled students who are very independent and very focused. It’s no different than a brick-and-mortar (school) except you control what you do every day.

What kind of areas will the online course and on the farm be covering? What would a typical day online or at the farm look like?

A typical day online is that-high school students will set their course, or guidance directors will set their course of student-then they are responsible on the school calendar. Everyday we’re in session, (students) go online, they have to be on a minimum of four hours, we do live-attendance. If we were in session, our student learning advocates, who are our licensed teachers that manage the students, they would get online and see what that student did yesterday over 24 hours period. If (students) have been on for four hours, (teachers) mark (students) in attendance, and then (teachers) go back and look at what (students) have done academically. So we are monitoring (students) academically, with data, every single day. It’s real-time data, we can make decisions for kids on how well they’re learning. For example, every week my team gets together and we look at all of our students. So if we’re having students-so if today is day 25 of the school year, we know exactly where they are supposed to be at academically. If we see a student has actually paced their learning to where they’re on day 34, that means they’re-and you can’t jump lessons, you have to stay in sequence with what the lesson plans tells us-but we’re going to look at that student and say this tells us this student is assessing real well, they’re understanding the subject matter, we will then get with their parents and that student and say we want to see if they will test out. We’re saying to a student, If you have that ability in that subject area, and you can test out because that assessment piece is very rigorous, if you pass it you know this stuff. It allows us to tell a student, let’s move on. A student can graduate early if they have the ability to do that. It also tells us if a student is struggling, then we can throw a support system around them. If it’s day 25 and they’re really on day 23, then we’re really gonna focus on a student, where they’re at, we may make a decision the subject matter’s, they’re not ready for it. So it really becomes personalized in how that student is learning, and how they can progress. We’re not driven by a grade. The grade is not the end piece for us, it’s the proficiency of how you learn and what you learn. So it’s a lot different from traditional school settings where everyone’s working for their grades. Well that A in the class might not necessarily mean that they know that subject matter. So we tell students, “look, if you want to go back and redo that lesson that you become a better learner of it, you can do that.” We’re not tied down to a teacher saying to a student, “You gotta stay on a track with where I’m at,” it’s the student saying “I’m staying on track with where I’m at.” So that’s how our online learning works, a student can determine each day when they want to learn and how they want to learn. If they are a student that works better, say from 11 to 3 o’clock, they can, but we know when they’re on all the time. That’s our line, it’s driven by the Indiana core, they take the same courses you would take at Carmel, earn the same degrees. On the other side of it at the farmer, we’re working with-my ag department chair is putting together all the ag curriculum programs where they’re doing actual, hands-on project based learning at our farm in Morgantown. So we have scheduled throughout the year times when we bring our students down to the farm and they would do animal vet coursework, they could do plant and soil, forestry, mapping and orientation, water conservation, soil erosion, the whole gamut. We’re also looking at other regional farms where we can take our kids and do stuff because our ag person will go around and meet face-to-face with students to do their project-based type learning. What they do on the farm and other animals is on hands-on application that maybe ties in with the coursework they’re taking. It’s a blended model, it’s really awesome because-if you’re learning about soil erosion, if you’re in a brick-and-mortar building, it’s hard to replicate that. You may take a shoebox, put dirt in it and show in a small simulation of how erosion works. Go down to an actual farm or regional farm where there’s real soil erosion happening, you see it in front (of you) and you work with that hands on. You got those two positions, and then we throw in our career pathway program, find what kids want to do. We prepare them to go into that direction. A lot of kids may not want to go to college after school, so we’re setting them up to be in a good paying job when they get out or in a two-year or four-year college. We’re looking for ways to develop kids, not only academically but in a career orientation piece.