ANDERSON — Every summer for the past several years, 14-year-old Jack Heller has helped bale hay for a farmer who is a childhood friend of his father.

That experience has led Jack to an interest in agriculture, though he hopes to pursue a more science or engineering-based career track working with farm machinery.

“I don’t know how to operate machinery, but I know a lot of the ins and outs of farming,” the New Palestine eighth-grader said.

That’s why he’s hoping to be in the first class to graduate from the Indiana Agriculture & Technology School, a free public charter school.

Jack recently enrolled in the school, which will serve students in grades 7 through 12. He attended an information session for prospective students Wednesday at the Ivy Tech Community College campus in Anderson.

“Basically, I want to learn all the stuff I need to go to college. Mostly, it’s nice to get hands-on experience you don’t get in public school. That can get you ahead, you know,” he said.

Thomas Sutherlin, director of enrollment for the school, said it was his father, Allan Sutherlin, who initially came up with the idea for the school because of his own youth on a Putnam County farm that led him to study agriculture at Purdue University.

“He said, ‘How can we generate interest? How can we grow this next generation of farmers?’” Sutherlin said.

Sponsored by the Trafalgar-based Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson United School Corp., Sutherlin’s dream will come true when the school goes live online on July 30.

Anderson Community Schools operates an agriculture class at Highland Middle School that officials hope will expand into advanced coursework at the D26 Career Center.

In the 2017 session of the Indiana General Assembly, state Rep. Melanie Wright, D-Yorktown, introduced a bill that would have helped introduce young people to agriculture through classes.

Indiana A & T’s founders acknowledge many students may not want to become farmers. But they can through its Core 40 curriculum, enter careers in biology, life sciences, environmental management, food and nutrition, human health and engineering that support agriculture, Sutherlin said.

“If a student wants to go to a four-year college, we’ll prepare them for that. But if they want to get a two-year degree, we’ll prepare them for that, and if they want to go into the workforce instead, we’ll prepare them for that as well,” he said.

The school will be part virtual and parts hands-on at a 600-acre farm north of Morgantown, where students will be able to apply what they learn about forestry, environmental science and animal science through project-based education. Students will be provided transportation to work on their projects once a month at the farm.

Keith A. Marsh, the school’s executive director and chief academic officer, said the projects won’t be graded.

“When you do this project-based learning, you don’t walk away with a grade; you walk away with the knowledge. What it is teaching you is to be proficient in your learning, not just take a class and walk away with a little knowledge,” he said. “What we want to do is be a virtual school that’s the gold star of online education.”

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