NORTHAMPTON — Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School has secured a $2 million state grant that will allow the school to expand one of its most popular programs, animal science. And if all goes according to plan, the school expects to increase its current enrollment of 570 students by 25%, according to Principal Joseph Bianca.
“Grant will definitely accomplish a lot. This allows us to repurpose existing spaces and bring a concentration for pets – a “companion animal” concentration for the breeding, care and maintenance of all these animals. It’s a huge industry right now,” Bianca said. “So when we’re talking about following our students into careers … it’s all part of a growing industry.”
Smith Vocational School was one of 14 high schools to receive funding as part of the Skills Capital Grants program, designed to help schools purchase and install equipment and make necessary repairs to better support vocational and technical education.
Bianca, who applied for the grant with the help of vocational director Melanie Chartier, says securing the grant is a particularly competitive process.
“We applied for this program twice before and were rejected both times,” he said.
As part of the application process, Bianca and Chartier were required to submit photos, graphs and projected impacts that show a direct path to employment using the state Workforce Skills Cabinet’s Regional Planning Plan as well as labor market data.
Competitive grants are awarded to educational institutions that can demonstrate partnerships with local businesses and align their curriculum and credentials with industry demand to maximize employment opportunities in each region of the state.
Funding for this round of state grants was included in the COVID-19 Urgent Recovery Needs Act, passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Charlie Baker, which included $100 million in state resources to provide capital improvement grants to postsecondary institutions. schools and public schools that offer career and technical education programs.
The Talent Capital Grants program has awarded more than $153 million to the state’s educational institutions since its inception in 2015.
As part of the launch of the new concentration, the school will hire a new teacher.
Bianca said current students in the animal science program will be able to take the concentration next academic year.
“For those who live on working farms, they are comfortable with large animals, but we have many students who have no experience with cows, horses or pigs, and they are interested in animal science, but they are afraid of it,” Bianca said. “Having the smaller animals on campus will give them their first hands-on experience and allow them to gradually transition to the larger animals.”
The focus on the new program is also well-timed, as the city of Northampton will build an animal control facility on the school’s campus.
“Students will have the opportunity to go hands-on with an animal control officer,” she said.
According to Superintendent Andrew Linkenhoeker, the creation of the companion animal concentration is the first step in a larger strategic plan to one day offer a veterinary assistant concentration.
The companion animal program will be housed in a building most recently used by Greenfield Community College for its nursing program. The building also previously served as the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The funding will also be used to modernize and expand space for the school’s horticulture and animal science teaching laboratories.
According to Linkenhoeker, plans to renovate the horticulture building have been in the works for some time. That changed some of those plans after a May 23 fire destroyed more than half of the 8,600-square-foot building.
“I was planning to talk to the board of trustees to get some money for this renovation. “Now the grant money can go into animal science renovations, which allows us to use some of the revolving money we have to rebuild the horticulture building,” he said. “There are a lot of moving pieces.”
Renovations to the companion animal program building are scheduled to begin in two to four weeks and be completed in February 2023.
“Once the students are able to move in, it will allow us to begin demolition work on the farm building, which is currently used as a classroom and nursery, and build a new steel structure on the same trail that will become a care facility,” he said. Bianca.
All the animals currently in the space – the rabbits and pigs inside and the chickens outside – will move into a 1920s barn.
Another classroom, currently used for the animal science program, will become a “pocket pet lab” housing small rodents and mammals such as hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, ferrets and guinea pigs.
While these new spaces provide a modernized learning environment for the animal science program, they also provide unique opportunities for other professions.
“Our students will be doing all the interior work, doing the electrical and plumbing work – it’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn in a commercial building,” Bianca said.
The grant also helps replace machines over 50 years old.
Part of the grant allows the school to purchase new equipment such as a truck and an excavator.
“First, it means safer equipment for our students with newer features that they will see when they go out into the industry,” Bianca said.
The grant will also help the school replace some landscaping equipment that was damaged in the May 23 fire.
Between the building and the equipment, the fire caused about $4 million in damage, Linkenhoeker said.
Businesses and community members also donated several small hand tools, some of which were destroyed. To date, the school has received $40,000 in cash and gift card donations to help with future remodeling of the horticulture building. At this point, plans are still being solidified.
Animal science is one of the school’s more popular programs, and many animal science students travel the greatest distance to participate in the program. Bianca hopes that expanding the program will lead to more enrollments.
“Cultivation and maintenance is a growing industry that we know students are interested in, so we’re giving them that opportunity,” he said. “Our goal is to get the enrollment to 600. We were there in the ’90s and we think this will help bring students back.”
In the future, the school also hopes to provide an equine concentration.
Smith Vocational School, which Linkenhoeker said is the oldest vocational school in the state and the oldest agricultural school in the nation, is the only agricultural school west of Interstate 495.
“We have kids from the New York border, the Vermont border, the Connecticut border and east of Worcester,” he said. “And the longest bus trips come here for this special program – up to an hour and a half each way every day. That’s one reason we want to improve and give them the best opportunities we can.”
Emily Thurlow can be reached at email@example.com.