Agriculture and early college mixing well in California’s Central Valley

150 150 Ed Coghlan

(Photo Credit: USDA/Flickr)

The California Economic Summit has identified preparation of the state’s workforce for 21st century jobs as a top priority. Putting the spotlight on unique regional approaches to addressing workforce and skills gaps is part of that goal. Here’s a follow-up report on such a program:

Year One of an innovative workforce program in California’s Central Valley has just wrapped up and the results have implications both for California education and the state’s workforce.

The college and career preparation program been called “extremely successful” by Reedley Community College President Dr. Sandra Caldwell. The largely Latino group of student participants are not children who grew up thinking they’d go to college.

“In fact, many of these students are first-generation high school students,“ Dr. Caldwell pointed out. “This program can make a transformational difference in the lives of them and their families.”

That program is the Paramount Agriculture Career Prep (PACP) program—which we first reported on in April. It is the brainchild of Roll Global, (now called The Wonderful Company) a huge, California-based agriculture business that employs about 4,000 people in California’s Central Valley.

The company has a workforce puzzle to solve. They have to fill about 300 jobs a year and they have a hard time finding qualified and trained workers.  

The PACP is a blend of an agricultural career academy and an early college program. Students will graduate from high school not only with a diploma, but also a community college degree and workplace certification that can get them placed in a job immediately after graduation.

Reedley College is collaborating with Sanger Unified School District, which has just completed its first year in the PACP.

In fact, the program has been so successful, it is already being expanded this summer, when the program will include incoming ninth graders at Washington Union high school and the middle college high school on the Reedley campus, which is about 30 miles from Fresno.

Because of her own background, Dr. Caldwell is not surprised that the dual enrollment program is working so well.

“I wouldn’t have gone to college—in fact I probably wouldn’t have finished high school—had not a high school counselor recommended that I take a college course while I was still in high school,” she said. “The course changed my life.”

Dr. Caldwell described herself during that time as an independent minor living on the Choctaw Indian Reservation in Oklahoma with no real purpose, until then.

Around 200 ninth graders among Sanger High School, Washington Union High School and Reedley’s middle college high school are expected in the program this summer.

Last year’s ninth graders at Sanger thrived and retention in the program is very high.

The Sanger students are on two tracks. One is in mechanized agriculture, which focuses on career technical education. These students will graduate from high school with Associate of Arts college degree and will be ready for the workforce.

The second track is in plant sciences, where students will also earn an associate’s degree and then transfer to a four-year school (e.g. California State University Fresno) to earn another degree.

In both cases, Central Valley agriculture employers will be waiting.

One in five Central Valley adults is employed in the $45-billion agriculture industry. And because the jobs are more high-tech, specialized and innovative, they require higher-level skills than just a decade ago.

And the data show that the early college high school model can be a game changer.

“When a high school student learns that he or she can take a college class, their high school grades improve as well,” Dr. Caldwell said.

The model does show what happens when, in this case, private business, community colleges and high schools work together in a regional basis.

“If we can improve the education outcomes at the K-12 schools in our area, we think we can improve the workforce and by extension the community,” said Noemi Donoso, The Wonderful Company’s senior vice president for education initiatives.

Dr. Caldwell is optimistic about what early college programs like this can mean for students’ futures and the future of the California economy.

“We are in the life changing and dream building business,” she said. “Our success here can lead to generational change for these students.”


Ed Coghlan

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