When Brittany Bolger, a senior at Suttons Bay High School, decided she wanted to become an equine veterinarian after college, she knew it was unlikely her school offered classes on the subject.
Fortunately, her district is one of 24 in Northern Michigan serviced by the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBAISD) Career-Tech Center. In her junior year, Bolger entered the Center's Agriscience/Natural Resources program, a two-year course specializing in hands-on instruction in landscape and floral design, interior plantscaping, hydroponics aquaculture, natural resource management – and veterinary science.
The program, which first launched in 1976, has seen a recent explosion in popularity thanks to the region's large number of agricultural families and the growing interest in local foods, farms and CSAs. Bolger is one of 50 students – 25 in a morning session, 25 in an afternoon session – who come to the Center several times a week to study plant and animal life, grow their own flowers and vegetables in two on-site greenhouses, and learn business, marketing and retail skills in the Center's flower shop, which sells goods from the greenhouses to the public.
In their second year, students also enter work internships at various community veterinary clinics, flower shops, co-ops and other course-related organizations, thanks to the Center's diverse ties with the local business community.
“The program helps give you a strong work ethic,” says Bolger, who interned this year at Clarke-Everett Dog & Cat Hospital in Traverse City. “You're not treated like a student – you're treated like an adult. It's good preparation for college.”
Ann Blight, head instructor of the Agriscience program, says the course is designed to teach students the value of hard work. “It's not always a glamorous business. Sometimes, you're just pulling up weeds. But instilling students with that sense of responsibility helps prepare them for careers in this industry.”
Bev Mills, another instructor at the program, says the Center's nontraditional structure helps students who may struggle in a traditional class to thrive. “Not everyone learns well in front of a computer or from a textbook,” she explains. “We've had kids here who've been labeled bad students who've done extremely well in the program.” Nurturing a plant or animal, for example, may help shy or sullen students to suddenly open up and connect, and Mills smiles as she recalls the countless teenagers – not a group particularly known for wanting their parents around – who've proudly invited their families to the school to see their work in the greenhouses.
Regardless of their particular area of focus, the students – many of whom go on to Michigan State University's agricultural and veterinary programs – are all learning job skills they couldn't otherwise develop in high school, in an industry Mills cites as “one of the fastest-growing in the country.” At the same time, they're contributing to the community: The intricate flower displays you see in the Open Space each summer, for example, are grown and planted in part by the students.
“We give students the opportunity to learn every facet of this business, and then put what they've learned into practice,” says Blight. “It's an experience they couldn't get anywhere else.”
Interested in checking out the Agriscience students' work? During the school year, the Center's flower shop on Parsons Road is open Tuesday-Friday from 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and does especially brisk business around Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. All proceeds from the flower shop go back into the Agriscience program. For more information, visit www.tbactc.org.