KENASTON. — More students may take notice of, and enrol in, agricultural online high school classes under the new Saskatchewan Distance Learning Corp.
Sask DLC, as it’s known, was established as a new Treasury Board Crown corp. last year to centralize online Kindergarten to Grade 12 education in the province.
The former Sun West School Division’s DLC in Kenaston is serving as head office with satellite locations in Estevan, La Ronge, Moose Jaw, Neilburg, Nipawin, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, Swift Current and Yorkton. About 150 teachers and administrators were hired to boost online teaching and learning.
CEO Darren Gasper, a former superintendent with Sun West, said 14 different online schools in several divisions merged to create Sask DLC. The school offers more than 120 high school courses, including some that provide post-secondary credit.
“This merger is really allowing us to increase the number of ag courses that are available to students across the province and (is) an opportunity (to) collaborate on some future ones as well,” he said.
Fifteen courses were offered this fall.
These include production-related courses: Cow-Calf 10, 20 and 30; Equine Studies 10, 20 and 30; and Field Crop 10, 20 and 30.
Trades-related classes include Agricultural Equipment Technician 20 and 30. Gasper said these have been popular because students have the opportunity for work placements at dealerships to see what the career is like. The classes include 50 hours of theory and 50 hours of work placement, along with an optional boot camp at SaskPolytechnic.
“We’ve seen a lot of kids go through the program and be offered a career job immediately following their graduation,” Gasper said.
Grace Waldenberger, who grew up on a farm near Moose Jaw and attended high school in the city, took both AET levels. She said she wanted to learn how to fix things to add to her role on the farm.
She said the theory portion helped explain a lot about engines, for example, prior to her work placement at Young’s Equipment, and the hands-on component was invaluable.
“They know you’re there to learn,” she said of the staff with whom she worked. “They know you won’t be able to rebuild a whole engine by yourself.”
But she was able to help her dad prepare equipment for different tasks. Although she didn’t choose a career as a technician — she is returning to the University of Saskatchewan for her second year in agribusiness — she said she appreciated the opportunity to take credit classes that interested her and gave her new skills.
Waldenberger said she liked distance learning because she could do it on her own time and it kept her excited about working in agriculture.
“You have to be diligent,” she said during a harvest break. “You have to be willing to work because it’s on you.”
She also said learning as an individual kept the intimidation factor down since she wasn’t in a classroom with people who knew much more than she did.
Another class added in the last couple of years is Parts Technician 30 and a Precision Agriculture 30 course is in development.
A partnership with the North American Equipment Dealers Association supports these classes.
NAEDA spends $40,000 each year to support the work placements.
Vice-president Larry Hertz said the association is happy to do so.
“Labour shortages are one of the most pressing risks facing Canadian agriculture and area; a major constraint on both agricultural growth and global competitiveness,” he said.
There are also two food-related classes.
“Food Studies 30 includes lots of opportunities to connect into the agriculture world, where food is produced and the sustainability and security side of that,” said Gasper. “Another course is called Agriculture and Sustainable Food Production. That one takes an even stronger look at the agricultural side of food.”
The latter includes 10 and 20 level classes.
In the 2022-23 school year, there were 250 students enrolled in the agricultural courses through Sun West. Gasper expects that number to grow to between 400 and 500 this year.
He said while more rural students take the ag courses, particularly those related to production, urban students may find a connection in some of the newer courses, particularly around food and technology.
Gasper said some rural kids probably think the classes will be an easy credit, but he has noticed something else.
“The really noticeable trend is, it’s what they’re passionate about. These are kids who love their horses (for example),” he said. “I would say the same about our kids that are going the trades route.”
All courses are taught by registered teachers. Those who teach the ag classes often come from that background or continue to farm and ranch. Some are crop insurance adjusters during the summer.
Gasper added that while the DLC classes are high school level, he believes the work of organizations such as Ag in the Classroom and Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan are having a greater impact on younger students and could lead to more interest in agricultural careers.
The added capacity that comes through the amalgamation of online schools provides the opportunity to reach more students.
Sun West had been offering its distance education for 15 years and because agriculture is an important industry within the division, it made sense to focus on those classes. Gasper said most online schools focus locally, so others might not be as familiar with what is available.
Sun West DLC had about 1,300 full time and 3,000 part-time students last year.
The projected number for this school year is 2,100 full time and between 8,000 and 10,000 part-time students.
Gasper said there are also a lot of adult students who use the DLC programs to upgrade or move toward certain careers.
New courses in the works include Agribusiness 30 and one focused on food security and sustainability.
Students apply online and the DLC operates on continuous intake.
“That’s important because that means students can start and finish a course at any time,” he said.
Internet access is a challenge in some parts of rural Saskatchewan. Gasper said the DLC has learned how to deal with that through optimizing courses to use minimal bandwidth but hopes improved service will make it easier to share videos.
Waldenberger said she would recommend the DLC to anyone looking for a course outside the regular curriculum.
“It stems from a really great community,” she added, noting that a staff member even helped her out during a trip home from Saskatoon in a snow storm.
SASKTODAY.ca is Saskatchewan's home page. Bookmark us at this link.