Burlington Central High becomes a regional hub for veterinary science education

Editor’s note: Suburban Education Lab is an occasional series focusing on inno­vative programs at suburban schools, colleges and universities, often tackling common, universal prob­lems students face using unique methods.

Grooming, administering shots and performing wellness exams on small animals isn't usually part of a high school curriculum.

But at Central High School in Kane County, it's a natural experience in a new veterinary science program - the first of its kind at an Illinois high school.

Burlington-based Central Unit District 301 launched the program this year to help address a statewide shortage of veterinary assistants. The goal is to get more students interested in the sciences, said Esther Mongan, District 301 assistant superintendent.

Mongan said the district believes "our strength is in agricultural science," and with that in mind, it plans to provide different career pathways in agriculture, including plant and animal sciences.

Central instructors are partnering with local veterinarians to help train students in skills such as practicing procedures and performing basic wellness exams on small animals, including checking pulse and evaluating overall health.

"A lot of vets have a hard time finding people with these skills," said Ryan Robinson, one of two Central veterinary science instructors who has been teaching animal, veterinary and agricultural sciences in the classroom for 11 years.

School employees have loaned their pet dogs - a golden retriever and two golden labradoodles - to the lab for students to practice wellness checks. The lab also is equipped with anatomical models of a chicken, pig, cow and horse.

"It is like my favorite class for every day," said Emily Kish, 15, a sophomore at South Elgin High School who plans to become a veterinary assistant and perhaps a veterinarian someday. "I get excited when we go down there because (the lab) looks like a surgery room."

Kish said being able to work with animals is the best part. "I can't wait for the unit to be grooming animals. It's a really cool program," she said.

Students who complete Central's program can get college credit allowing them to graduate a year earlier.

  Students check the teeth and gums of a labradoodle in the veterinary science lab at Central High School. Burlington-based Central Unit District 301 this year launched the state's first comprehensive veterinary science program at the high school level to fill a statewide shortage of veterinary assistants. Brian Hill/

Over many districts

This year, 50 students from District 301 and Elgin Area School District U-46 are enrolled in the program. Next year, students from Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 also will be taking classes at Central, and officials plan to open the program to students from St. Charles Unit District 303, as well.

District 301 worked with the Illinois State Board of Education to create its veterinary science curriculum. It cost the district $750,000 to build and equip the veterinary lab and hire instructors, officials said.

The three-year program, starting in sophomore year, covers a range of topics, including personal safety and animal handling, animal industry issues, species care and management, microbiology, biosecurity, anatomy and body systems, reproduction and genetics, pharmacology, hospital, lab and surgical prep procedures, laws and ethics, and even office management. Students also must complete 100 hours of internship starting junior year with local veterinary clinics, animal shelters or hospitals before they can be certified as veterinary assistants.

  Burlington-based Central Unit District 301 this year has launched a unique veterinary science program housed at Central High School. Its goal is to fill a statewide shortage of veterinary assistants. Brian Hill/

Jobs available

A few other suburban schools offer animal science programs - WILCO Area Career Center in Romeoville and Naperville Central and North high schools - though none have similar depth of curriculum.

"It's the largest and most comprehensive veterinary science program at a high school," said Lucas Allen, agriculture education program adviser for the state education board who helped District 301 develop its program. "This is the first one that has a three-year sequence."

Rolling Meadows High School is expected to start an animal science program within two years to complement its new plant and food sciences courses, said Allen, who helps teachers and schools statewide improve and expand agricultural education as part of a state initiative.

"There is a very high need for people in the state of Illinois to have an understanding of the agricultural industry," Allen said. "There are many unfilled jobs in the field of animal science."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environment occupations are expected to grow more than 5 percent between 2015 and 2020. Demand is highest for plant and food scientists, sustainable biomaterials specialists, water resources scientists and engineers, precision agriculture specialists, and farm-animal veterinarians.

District 301 officials hope to expand their program through business partnerships and securing more funding. They also plan to allow students to raise sheep and pigs at the school to gain animal husbandry experience.

"We may need a second one of these labs," Mongan said. "It would be a larger space where they could (handle) the larger animals, as well."

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