Increasing numbers of Illinois middle and high school students study agriculture, but roughly 97% lack the opportunity to hear about careers in agriculture, food and natural resources.

The Illinois Leadership Council for Agricultural Education (ILCAE) recently discussed the continued growth of ag education programs and a new thrust to reach students whose schools don’t offer ag classes.

For the 2021-22 school year, Illinois districts started or reopened 13 ag programs, and 33 more ag teachers entered classrooms. Some districts hired another teacher for an existing program. Illinois is home to 375 ag programs taught by 519 teachers, based on data from Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education (FCAE). That expansion followed a record 139 job openings, which far outpaced Illinois’ 33 ag teacher graduates of whom 27 joined the teaching profession.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, 4,716 middle school students and 31,089 high school students were enrolled in ag education for the 2021-22 school year, representing 3.1% of all students in fifth through 12th grades.

But the good news about new programs and expansion of others is exacerbating the shortage of ag teachers. “Schools adding teachers to existing programs has really escalated and that has gobbled up (available) teachers,” reported Luke Allen, FCAE adviser in northeast Illinois.

Meanwhile, FCAE “worked hard to get the (open) positions filled,” added Dean Dittmar, FCAE state coordinator. That included districts hiring of five ag teachers from other states and 36 educators with provisional licenses who met state education and work experience requirements, Dittmar explained.

Growth to continue

Ag educators anticipate continued expansion. At least three more districts are expected to open or restart ag programs, while four additional teachers are projected to join existing programs. Dittmar anticipated 11 openings for the 2023-24 school year but noted four jobs already have been filled.

Allen noted two middle schools plan to add agriculture programs along other suburban and rural districts in northeastern Illinois. Meanwhile, districts in other regions are opening ag programs or exploring the possibility of adding agriculture, according to FCAE reports.

In 2023, 30 agriculture education students are expected to graduate from Illinois State University, Southern Illinois University, Western Illinois University and the University of Illinois. The universities are projecting 30-some ag teacher graduates per year in the future.

However, a new and unanticipated trend is somewhat easing the pressure on the ag teacher shortage. Districts without traditional ag programs are adding courses with agriculture and natural resource concepts.

Allen reported advanced placement environmental science courses are changing into career and technical education courses with hands-on applications. The districts’ environmental science teachers are obtaining provisional licenses to teach classes in agriculture and natural resources.

For example, Barrington High School students are restoring district-owned property and a riparian area along a creek. The students and teachers will also reestablish a farm upland from the creek, Allen added.

“Agriculture education is being recognized for student opportunities and outcomes and administrators are considering these choices,” Allen said.

No ag option for most

But despite the expansion, roughly 1.157 million middle school and high school students are not exposed to careers in agriculture, food or natural resources because their districts lack curriculum. ILCAE members learned a public-private partnership plans to tackle that problem by offering agricultural/industry professionals as classroom resources.

Next year, a new agri-food career coordinator will recruit and work with professionals to offer virtual, classroom presentations for teachers in different subjects, like chemistry, economics, biology and math. They may share how the subject matter applies to their careers and answer students’ questions. The new coordinator will work for the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance with support and coordination from FCAE.

“Right now, there is no visibility for ag and food careers in a majority of the schools, especially in Chicago,” Allen said. “Only 5.2% of the state’s high school students have ag education exposure.”

The professionals’ classroom presentations would also be available to teachers in districts that offer ag courses, Dittmar continued. After an initial presentation, Dittmar envisioned staff with a local affiliate following up with the teacher and students and strengthening the connection.

“This is a starting point,” Dittmar said. “How do we get our foot in the door to talk about food and agriculture?”