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Horizon raises concerns over declining ag program

Posted on June 2, 2016 by Vauxhall Advance

Nikki Jamieson
Vauxhall Advance

Interest in a hands-on agriculture program has been declining in Horizon School Division high schools.

In his May superintendent’s report for the Horizon School Board, Wilco Tymensen told the board that due to a funding change for high schools, the Green Certification Program is in jeopardy.

“It’s a program that can be of great benefit to students, and it’s a program we see to be valuable to our rural students,” said Tymensen, adding that he and Ward 5 board member Terry Michaelis had met with Rutledge College, which the program is run through, to discuss it. “We want to continue to ensure that the kids who need it, who benefit from it, are receiving those opportunities.”

Introduced in 2007 and made available to all high schools in Alberta since 2010, the complementary program was designed to help young students receive experience and training in the agriculture industry.

Completing a Level I Green Certificate, or becoming a competent farm production technician, requires the student to take three courses that they, upon completion, receive 16 course credits for.

“It’s really an off-campus program, kind of work experience, but it’s farm related. So kids have an opportunity to actually get more hands-on training.”

The point of the program is that students are given the opportunity to gain experience and learn from a variety of agriculture-related fields as part of the senior high school program. They learn on the job, under supervision and administration of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development and Alberta Education, and when they complete all three courses in a specialization, AARD would issue to the student the technician level Green Certificate for that specialization.

However, the program is costly, at $1,000 per student. Historically, high school students who take the Green Certification Program receive credit, and the school in turn receives funding for the earned credits. This promoted a business model environment where schools became good at generating credits, as it means that the school would get more funding.

But within the last few years, the funding system for high schools was redesigned and now they are block funded – meaning they get ‘X’ amount of dollars based on the number of students and the average credit count per student.

“The fear I have, is that schools will look at it and go, ‘We’ll get this much funding whether we offer you this opportunity or no. It’s going to cost us, and so why would we do it?’ The message to principals at our last admin meeting was that’s not acceptable,” said Tymensen. “We’re not in the business of making money, we’re in the business of educating kids.”

Since students earning more credits would not equal the school earning more money, schools may be hesitant in paying for a $1,000 program. And this is not just a problem that Horizon is facing, all school boards across southern Alberta – whose major industry is agriculture – are seeing declining participation rates for the Green Certification Program.
Tymensen reiterated that this is a uniquely high school problem, as the trend for elementary and middle schools is they run on a student-oriented model, and not a business one.
“The funny part is, no one at a junior high level or elementary level goes, ‘Let’s get away with as little as we can, because we get money anyway’. That’s not the ideology, that’s not the philosophy. And yet, the government has moved along with high schools and said ‘You paid for what you do’. So you’ve bred an entire institution at the high school level about you get paid for everything you do. Well, the government has come along now and said, ‘Here’s your lump sum of money, do what you need to do’. And now, you’re trying to change a culture, to no, you’re not getting paid for everything you do, you’re getting paid for what you need to operate.”

While paying out $1,000 may not be a good business practice, schools are not businesses. High schools, according to Tymensen, need to shift back away from the business model of yesteryear, and focus on the students.

While there may not be a one-step solution, Tymensen says that he has been talking to school administrators, stressing that they shouldn’t simply say ‘no’ to kids who would benefit from it. In a meeting later this month, green certification is on the agenda, and he hopes to discuss the implications of block-funding and what other jurisdictions are doing about it.

He also recognized that, due to block funding, it might also be a matter of not having enough funding to allow every kid who wants to enter the program to have access to it. But for kids who have indicated that this is their career path have been asking for it, support should be given to those students.

Additionally, doing less will mean that schools would get less funding. While Tymensen does not know when the government will reset the three-year average of credits for a school, meaning that in a couple of years, or potentially the next, a school could see a significant drop in funding if they decide to do less with what they currently have.

“It’s an average of a past practice. So if you had 20 kids doing green certificate in the past, your average CU per student, is based on 20 students taking green certificate,” he said.

“If you now suddenly say, ‘Well, this is my money and my funding, and I don’t have to have green certificate, because this is what I get paid’, you make less CUs, which means… In these three current years, if you make half of what you used to three years ago, you make half the funding.”

Utilizing the Green Certification Program amongst Horizon schools is down in terms of numbers, but Tymensen is hesitant to cast the full blame of that on block funding. A lot of the principals in the division are new, with the previous numbers from previous principals, so they don’t have the full background experience on the program’s usage at their school. It could also be that right now, all interested students have completed the program.

“It could very well be that every student living on a farm, working on a farm, is registered in green certificate, because they (the schools) got CU money for it,” said Tymensen. “And now they’re going, we have a whole bunch of kids who, a) don’t work on a farm as much, b) who aren’t interested and c) we don’t see the benefit of it, because they have no intention of going into agriculture, so why would we offer it?”

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