Shepaug’s Agriscience program grows as students vie for spot

He said the school’s Agriscience program runs on a three-circle model of agriculture education that includes hands-on classroom and lab experience, supervised agriculture experience work like internships, and the Future Farmers of America program.

“I think the ag education model is the best model for education as far as readying students for the next phase of their lives and their careers,” Cremeans said. “I think kids nowadays really love the hands-on opportunities that we can provide for them here. I think agriculture careers are on the rise too. There’s hundreds of agriscience related careers available for these kids to learn about and our program helps kids interested in those careers explore them.”

The state-funded Agriscience program in Washington is now in its fourth year of operation and is open to students from New Milford, Danbury, New Fairfield, Sherman, Brookfield, Bethel and Region 12, which encompasses the towns of Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater. The program incorporates the fields of science, technology, engineering and math into four different educational pathways, according to its website.

Due to its unique programming, demand for the Agriscience Academy is high, particularly in New Milford where several students are on the waitlist. Shepaug aims to increase the number of students who may participate over the long term and is adding new pathways to enhance opportunities for students, Cremeans said. 

There are 152 students for the current school year and around 164 students enrolled for the next school year, he said.

“We’re approaching what I think is a good healthy number for next year and I think the following year we should be what our ratio should be,” he said. “Me personally, I’d like to see 175 kids in the program.”

There are 20 Agriscience centers across Connecticut, and Shepaug’s program is the newest, Cremeans said. 

“Being so new, we can take the best model and the best things from each center,” he said. “We have a blank slate to do whatever we want here, which is really cool.”

Sending local students to Shepaug

Cremeans said Shepaug works with the participating school districts to determine how many students are accepted into the program each year, but each town “limit(s) how many students the district supports.” He said expanding the number of seats in the program is “in the long-term plans.”

“We are growing slowly at the moment,” Cremeans said, “and we’re hoping to have all go here in the future. Obviously there are a lot of business aspects that play into this decision as well.”

After several New Milford students were put on the waitlist, parents begged the school board to add more money to next year’s education budget to allow more students to attend the program, but were told by the school and finance boards that it wouldn’t be feasible. The schools have an agreement with Region 12 schools for 28 seats in the program, according to Superintendent Janet Parlato. This means the district budgets for seven high school students per grade to attend. 

Twenty-seven New Milford students applied for the Agriscience program this year, according to New Milford mother Megan Byrd. Of the 27 applicants, Byrd said 11 students scored perfectly in their interview and an additional six students scored very well and made it into the program, only to be waitlisted.

Byrd, whose daughter Heather was one of the waitlisted students, said she is waiting to hear from the school board if more seats will be funded — especially after the town’s education passed last Tuesday. 

Kelly Paredes, The Sherman School’s middle school counselor, said Sherman had three eighth graders apply for the Agriscience program, all of whom were accepted. She said the school has an additional nine students that are going to Shepaug in the fall and have the option of transferring into the Agriscience program.

“I believe they’re looking forward to being part of the Shepaug community and I think it’s a good transition from Sherman,” Paredes said. “Going to Shepaug is a familiar feel.”

Kathy June, executive secretary of the Newtown school district, said the number of students Newtown sends to the program depends on how many students apply. She said six students applied for the 2023-24 school year, though the district doesn’t know if all six students will attend.

“It’s possible that more students will apply over the summer,” June said, “but we won’t have an enrollment count ’til the beginning of next year.”

Ken Post, director of operations for Brookfield schools, said Brookfield allows four new students to attend the Agriscience program ever year.

“I think this year might have been the first year where they had more than four students apply,” he said. “I think they had six, seven students apply, but we only budgeted for four and we communicated with Shepaug to see if they wanted to allow more in with the money they were budgeted.”

Since Brookfield’s education budget failed at last Tuesday’s budget referendum, Post said he doesn’t see more seats opening up “in our current budget year, but it’s certainly something to consider in future years.” 

New pathways

For the students who want to go to the program but weren’t accepted, local schools have offered a few agriculture-related courses on campus, though none quite like the classes at Shepaug.

June said Newtown has a greenhouse where students can grow plants and flowers for the “Newtown Greenery 1 and 2” and “Greenhouse Management 1 and 2” courses. Beyond the greenhouse, she said, “We don’t offer the students agriscience classes that Shepaug would with animals and farm equipment.”

Cremeans said the Agriscience program has added two new course pathways for the 2023-24 school year. In addition to animal science, equine science, agricultural mechanics and food science, the Agriscience program will have a horticulture and landscaping pathway and an aquaponics and natural resources pathway next year.

Cremeans said the program has also added new electives like livestock showing, agriculture business and leadership, and K-9 basics and dog grooming.

‘A wonderful program’

Cremeans said he visits the region’s middle schools every fall to give presentations about the Agriscience program and recruit students. He said one of the things he emphasizes during his visits is the program’s facilities, including the food science labs, the indoor horse riding arena, the greenhouse and the large animal facilities. 

Students can attend the program’s Open House events in the spring and fall to learn more and then apply to the program in the fall of their eighth grade year. They are required to submit their transcript, a personal essay and three letters of recommendation with their application.

Tammy Witt of Sherman said her older daughter Peyton, 15, currently attends the Agriscience program while her daughter Casey, 14, was accepted into the program for next year.

“Peyton has an incredible love and relationship with animals,” Witt said. “She knew instantaneously as soon as Shepaug’s Agriscience program was presented that that was where she wanted to go… Casey is also an animal lover and was very excited to be able to have the opportunity to apply for the program.”

She said it “means the world” that her daughters can attend a school where “they’re exploring something that they want to do in their futures.”

“It’s a wonderful program for students who may have some anxiety issues as well because it can be so calming… I think that allows them to come out of their shells and to build their own self-efficacy and hone their skills at the same time.”


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