As the fall semester winds down, with winter break officially starting for Newton schools tomorrow, work to launch the Ag Academy at Newton High school in 2018-19 is heating up as enrollment will begin in just a few short months.

Presenting to the Newton Board of Education at its December meeting, a group of teachers helping with the design/structure of the academy (who will be the core instructors in the academy) highlighted some of the focal points this fall as the academy enters its last stages before officially being open to NHS students next school year.

Given that enrollment will be starting soon, NHS ag teacher Amber Janzen said outreach has been the top task for teachers and administrators (like Director of Career and Technical Education Melinda Rangel) this fall, sharing information at an open house as well as hosting some student info sessions throughout the semester.

"We tried to open up their eyes to what a career in ag could be and explain what the Ag Academy is," Janzen said, "so that a couple of students start to understand what it is and they can spread it to their peers."

Similarly, marketing has drawn a lot of the design team's attention in trying to disseminate information about the Ag Academy to students through the district website linking to other websites that describe the field of study. That has also been the focus of a marketing video the group has been working on, a video that highlights the cross-curriculum opportunities — and various career opportunities — offered through the Ag Academy.

"A lot of times they think it's farming, livestock and crops," said NHS social studies teacher Elizabeth Gunn.

Education through the Ag Academy may not be available to USD 373 students until next school year, but the teachers on the design team have been learning a lot already in preparing to launch the new initiative — including taking a tour of academy-based McGavock High School in Nashville over fall break.

In Nashville, the design team saw how the academy-based model is used to prepare students — starting with the freshman academy — for careers post-graduation and how the project-based learning specific to each model can fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

"We got to learn from the experts, as it were," said NHS English teacher Ryan Kopper. "It's complex, but beautiful."

Teachers began that process of learning how to teach those common skills across curriculum over the summer, working with Mike Gross, Career Education Coordinator at Junction City High School.

Focusing on analysis, the team looked at ways to include that in the Ag Academy curriculum across multiple disciplines.

"That's a skill that they need to be able to look at, whether trouble-shooting or analyzing data," said NHS science teacher Lacy Fair.

Speech was another skill that was brought up as an example, while the interdisciplinary approach was also addressed in relation to project-based learning opportunities — something the design team has been getting ideas on, taking inspiration from the trash mountain project in Topeka to discussions with Numana to help packing food to send to hunger-stricken nations. It is something the design team is already excited to bring into the classroom as well.

"I think we're all looking forward to tackling it with the students and seeing what ideas they come up with, too," Kopper said.

Concerns for the design team center on the misperceptions of academies, but in discussing the Ag Academy with various groups the teachers noted they feel good with where NHS is at.

Board members questioned how broad the career approach would be for the Ag Academy and teachers noted that along with work in the agronomy and animal sciences fields the academy will include a focus on ag mechanics, while the design team noted the goal initially is to get 20 to 25 students enrolled and allow room for growth.

"Right now, we're just trying to get our feet in the door," Fair said.

"I'm very excited by the progress you have made," said board president Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs, "and the vision you have moving forward."