WESTMINSTER ...X... — WESTMINSTER -- Students who never considered taking vocational agriculture have flocked to a new program in Carroll County high schools that offers classes such as wildlife management, landscaping and veterinary medicine -- resulting in a 300 percent jump in the program's enrollment.
The program was revamped this year, with about 22 varied classes that are shorter and more specific, said David A. Miller, supervisor of vocational and technology education. Students responded immediately, he said, and at the beginning of school last fall, "enrollment was up about 300 percent -- from 247 last year to 900 signed up this year."
Scheduling conflicts prevented some from taking the new courses this year, he noted, but by Sept. 30, there were 699 students taking agriculture electives in the county's five high schools.
The plan to phase out the old approach -- a general agriculture course in grades nine through 12 -- in favor of classes on specific topics was agreed upon two years ago, said Joel Rosen, who has taught agriculture at Westminster High School for 16 years.
Teachers scrambled last summer to prepare about a dozen new classes from scratch. He is teaching the more non-traditional courses, while his fellow agriculture teacher, 14-year veteran Charles F. Schuster, handles the more traditional ones.
"I see the need for the changes," Mr. Schuster said recently, after completing a veterinary science class that included cats' health problems. "Farming is on the decline in Carroll County, and we're seeing a lot more of the urban scene -- five acres with horse or a goat, a lawn and a garden. And the work is not in the farm business."
"The traditional agriculture program has been phased out here," Mr. Rosen agreed, "but we're trying to hold on to the traditional students while attracting the larger school population into the agricultural areas."
To do so, the course offerings include forestry, horticulture, agricultural structures, agricultural mechanics, recreation and parks management, natural resource management, landscaping, biotechnology, horse management, crop science, home maintenance and improvement, soils, agribusiness management, small animal care, and large animal science.
"My favorite course has been wildlife management," Mr. Rosen said. "It's something I've always done as a hobby, and I was really excited when I found out I was going to be able to put it into a course and teach it."
The students apparently felt the same way. "About 150 signed up for just that one course -- five classes," he said. "We didn't expect it, but it was wonderful. We tried to accommodate them all." Similarly, a class in veterinary science with Mr. Schuster drew 110 sign-ups -- enough for four to five classes.
The subjects attract more students, Mr. Miller said, but another factor has been the shortening of all courses to one hour and one semester. Until this year, there was only Vocational Agriculture 1,2,3 and 4 -- a broad course, primarily designed to train people to go to work after high school, he said. And its two- and three-hour-long classes eliminated it from many students' schedules.
"It conflicted with, for example, chemistry, or similar courses needed for college. Or if you were in band or athletics, there was no time for an elective in agriculture, if it takes up two or three hours a day."
"Now, for example, a student who wants to be a veterinarian in ninth grade can take a course in small animals . . . and maybe not take another agriculture course until senior year, when the requirements are out of the way," Mr. Miller said.
An agriculture course also counts as a practical arts credit, which is required for graduation, Mr. Rosen noted.
In two recent classes, Mr. Rosen had his wildlife management students figure the carrying capacity of a mixed habitat -- how many deer an area could support -- and from that, how much hunting a wildlife manager could allow.
With calculators working, students with short and long hair, some wearing an earring and heavy metal or tie-dyed T-shirts, worked through the problem.
After the habitat problem, the class moved on to fish slides from the slow-moving carp to the fighting northern pike, a discussion of a trout's basic needs, and a lament for the Atlantic sturgeon, now rare in the Chesapeake Bay.
"You have to look at the overall body shape of the fish, people, if you're going to learn them," Mr. Rosen said, reminding them that fish identification will be part of the final exam.
"Oh, I don't know them," protested sophomore Laurie Pallack, 16, blushing and laughing when Mr. Rosen chose her to identify slides of all 31 fish.
"Great White! Copperhead! Spartacus," her classmates called good-naturedly, but not very helpfully, as she struggled through -- finally winning a round of applause for a near-perfect performance.