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Brett W. McFadden: An incredible opportunity for students

Brett W. McFadden

Over the past year, most of my columns have focused on the latest updates and challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed on Nevada County’s public education system and high schools. Well, this month, let’s put that bad news aside, and focus on some very good news. News that I think has the possibility to fundamentally alter and improve the educational opportunities for generations of Nevada County students.

In the next few weeks, the Nevada Joint Union High School District (NJUHSD) will take ownership of a one-of-the-kind outdoor agricultural learning ranch. The potential uses and “hands on” applications of this new ranch to district instructional programs is quite possibly endless.

A local ranch has been recently endowed to our high school district by a local family trust. Our sincere thanks go to the Phelan Family Trust for this incredible opportunity. This lasting legacy will benefit students for many generations of future Nevada County students.

By the end of this month, pending miscellaneous real estate and legal paperwork and signatures, we hope to take ownership of the 86-acre ranch on McCourtney Road situated halfway between Nevada Union and Bear River High Schools.

The ranch boasts two structures, one of which needs modernization and another that may need demolition. Along with two other structures that could serve as storage and/or machine shops. Primary infrastructure is already in place, including water from a Nevada Irrigation District canal. There are countless promising options for students to use this property as a real life educational venue.

Raising livestock on the pastureland is just one idea. I can almost envision students riding fences. Cattle grazing might even generate income to pay for ranch security and upkeep, as well as provide hands-on, real-life learning for our high school agriculture students.

Other uses include agricultural mechanics, agricultural sciences, environment studies, animal husbandry, and perhaps even veterinary sciences. In addition, the ranch could be available for students from other local elementary and middle schools for their hands-on learning as well. The possibilities are too numerous to describe in one article.

It will take four months to a year for the California Department of Education and the California Division of the State Architect to cross the “T’s” and dot the “I’s” that will allow the ranch to become a teaching space. We will also need to meet Americans with Disabilities Act regulations and standards, such as handicapped parking and accessibility improvements.

NJUHSD has formed a Ranch Vision Advisory Committee tasked with developing a long-term strategy for facilities and programs at the ranch. The committee held its first meeting at the ranch last week. Through this vision-planning process, the district will be responsive to the needs of our agriculture programs, participating community members, and partner agencies.

Initially, we expect students will participate in field trips to the ranch. The focus of those field trips will envelop many academic disciplines, particularly the sciences. The property boasts native flora and fauna, multiple water sources, and a healthy aquatic/wetlands habitat.

The property may potentially house some Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAE). As early as the 2021-2022 school year, Nevada Union and Bear River High School agriculture students may oversee raising livestock and crops at the ranch, both components of our current agriculture curriculum.

SAE opportunities on the property will be particularly valuable to students who are not able to house their livestock projects at their homes. The ranch will also serve as an alternate site for projects that cannot feasibly be housed on the NU or BR campuses.

The ranch may be the hub of student internships for various Career Technical Education (CTE) programs such as Agriculture Mechanics and the Building/Construction Trades.

With an eye toward ranching and farming uses, we are also considering the potential for student-operated business ventures, joint educational opportunities with feeder schools, and associated community functions.

While properties with planned integration into agriculture curricula are not entirely unheard of, they are rare. The most noteworthy in our region is located in Lincoln and has provided a great resource to students in that area. Learning and innovating as we proceed, I believe NJUHSD’s ranch will offer a truly unique academic experience.

We are currently working on logistics to provide transportation between high schools and off-campus, high-demand CTE programs. As we consider ways to integrate the ranch into our existing, robust agriculture programs, we understand we will likely need to offer busing. The high school district is in the process of shifting to district-wide access for all our CTE courses, including our agriculture programs. This means a student from any district high school – not just NU or BR – could enroll in a CTE course at the ranch, depending on the student’s scheduling constraints and course availability.

If current enrollment in agriculture courses at BR and NU is any indication of student use, we predict as many as 500 students will eventually utilize the property as a classroom.

The ranch is yet another development as we fulfill our district mission to provide quality educational opportunities for high school students in western Nevada County, and realize our district vision to be California’s district of choice, preparing all students for success in college, career and life.

Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 29 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.

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