New high school agriculture program in Sonoma Valley

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College is still several years away for Sonoma Valley High School sophomore Francesca Pharo, but the 15-year-old already is on a pathway to her future career.

Francesca is part of the inaugural program of the Sonoma Academy of Sustainable Agriculture, an innovative small learning community of linked classes within the campus of 1,300 students.

The academy offers a three-year, agriculture-based curriculum that prepares students for a broad range of careers in farming, viticulture, business and related professions. Twenty-two sophomores are part of the initial group.

“It’s nice knowing that in the future I’ll have a background in the whole business part of agriculture,” said Francesca, who hopes to become a large-animal veterinarian. “I thought it would be really cool to be in a closer community with all these ag kids.”

The academy is the second career pathway at the campus, the only high school in Sonoma Valley. Students also can select an academic route in the Engineering, Design and Technology Academy.

Both academies are endorsed by the National Academy Foundation, founded by Wall Street banker, financier and philanthropist Sanford “Sandy” Weill, who now lives in Sonoma Valley and serves on the NAF board. He also is on the board of advisers for Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

With more than 600 academies across the country, NAF offers a network of education, business and community leaders who work together to prepare students for college and careers in specific industries, engaging students and helping shape the future workforce.

Those completing the Sonoma Academy of Sustained Agriculture requirements are eligible for NAFTrack certification that provides special hiring considerations among top companies for college students and those starting their careers.

The agriculture program has a long tradition at SVHS, with nearly one-third of the student body currently taking at least one agriculture elective or core-subject class.

All are automatically enrolled in the school’s Future Farmers of America chapter, which provides numerous leadership opportunities. Francesca, who raises steer, market lamb and breeding sheep, currently serves as FFA secretary and is one of about 100 active members at the school.

“The support here is amazing, and it has grown substantially since I’ve gotten here,” said teacher Felicia Rush, who joined the agriculture department in 2011. “It’s been monetary support, but this past year it’s been more educational support (as well).”

Rush, 30, is the SASA lead teacher who spent the past year planning and implementing the program, with help from fellow agriculture teachers Karling Skoglund and Danny Aschwanden, mathematics teacher Janine Duma and Andrew Ryan, one of three vice principals at the school. Chris Rauschenfels, a new vice principal this year, serves as the SASA coordinator.

Rush was awarded a $50,000 grant to plan the program and a $100,000 implementation grant from the California Department of Education.

The academy provides students with a streamlined sequence of agriculture courses, including plant and soil science and agriculture biology as sophomores; viticulture and soil and agriculture chemistry as juniors; and agriculture business and marketing as seniors.

Each class is University of California-approved and meets requirements for admission to a four-year college or university.

Students also can select from electives such as floral design and agriculture mechanics. The school’s culinary and foods programs work closely with the department to promote farm-to-table opportunities and cross-curriculum learning that gives students a knowledge of how their food is sourced.

“We want to prepare kids for college and careers in our community,” Rush said. “It matches what our community is doing. If we were in the Central Valley, it would be more operational and conventional farming because that’s what they’re doing — it’s mass production.”

SASA students will have an opportunity for job shadowing, field trips and internships. Wendy Swanson, the school’s work-based learning coordinator, is doing outreach and developing community partnerships to support the program’s objectives.

“Our goal is to have paid internships between junior and senior year and encourage job shadows,” Rush said.

Rush envisions academy students developing a business plan to bring to the community, perhaps selling produce or products at a local farmers market.

Additionally, agriculture students are required to volunteer 20 to 40 hours each year as part of the department’s Supervised Agricultural Experience program. Students learn record-keeping, financial and time-management skills and gain hands-on work experience.

Past SAE projects have ranged from raising backyard hens and selling eggs to helping out at a local feed store or volunteering at the Sonoma Ecology Center.

The academy further develops an agricultural base and “creates a closeness” among students, Rush said. “Part of the appeal is the relationship it creates with their peers and their teachers,” she said.

The high school campus has about 8 acres dedicated to the agriculture program, with an acre currently developed for the school farm. Facilities include two livestock barns and turnout pens, a vineyard with 300-plus vines, a greenhouse, a shade house and a rose garden. This year, students will learn how to operate a new tractor the department recently purchased.

Pat Stornetta of Leveroni Vineyards is among the many supporters who have contributed time and expertise to the department and the new academy. She helped establish connections with Enterprise Vineyard Management, the business that donated supplies, time and labor to install the campus vineyard.

“Sonoma Valley has deep roots in agriculture,” Stornetta said. “This academy will allow students direct exposure to production agriculture here in our valley and to the ancillary jobs that support and sustain our industry.”

Rush said SASA students ultimately will benefit from the connections within the community and the knowledge they bring to the agriculture program.

Francesca, from the inaugural academy, agrees.

“It’s nice to know you have everyone supporting you and your best interests,” she said.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at


The Sonoma Valley High School FFA chapter is hosting a benefit for Middletown FFA students affected by the Valley fire. Tri-tip barbecue dinners for $30 will be available for pickup at 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22 at SVHS, 20000 Broadway. Order presale tickets from Felicia Rush at 933-4010, ext. 5294, or email

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