A substantial gift from a local businessman will expand agriculture-based education to hundreds of local students in the next few years.
The majority of the $6.5 million donation to Missouri State University and Springfield Public Schools from businessman Bill Darr and the Darr Family Foundation will be used to construct an SPS magnet school at the 90-acre Darr Agricultural Center in southwest Springfield.
SPS officials say when the Darr Agricultural Magnet School opens for fourth, fifth and sixth graders in fall 2021, it will be the first of its kind.
“There is nothing like this in the country that we’ve been able to find,” said Kelsey Brabo, the district’s coordinator of choice programs and student experiences.
“Agriculture at the secondary level is booming.”
While high school ag programs are common, she said those targeting younger generations are rare. The Darr school also represents a first for SPS’ choice programs: It will enroll students in the magnet school for three consecutive years instead of a traditional single year.
“We really want our kids to have that seed-to-table experience,” Brabo said. “The other side of that is an exposure and an understanding of the vast opportunities that it can offer kids. Agriculture is the biggest career opportunity in Missouri.”
The industry employs roughly 400,000 people across the state, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. That’s nearly 14% of the workforce.
The rest of the donation, roughly $2.5 million, will go toward construction of a new MSU academic building at the Darr center, which houses MSU’s College of Agriculture.
Dean Ron Del Vecchio said the gift will expand its small animal education programs, with plans to grow its companion animal science minor to a new major.
“There’s a lot of interest in the animal sciences,” he said. “I suspect that’s going to really flourish.”
He said the curriculum is coming into focus now but it would include animal rehabilitation and training therapy and show animals.
Del Vecchio said there are 641 students in the Agriculture College and gifts like these are the start of growing the program.
Ag and education have been at the center of businessman Darr’s life and philanthropy.
“He grew up on a farm, a farm that his grandfather built and started,” said Erin Danastasio, president of the Darr Family Foundation board and Darr’s granddaughter. “For him, everything was around agriculture. That’s just been something that is embedded in the family. Years later, he ended up starting the first of four food ingredient companies.”
Darr, 89, completed the sale of his American Dehydrated Foods and International Dehydrated Foods businesses to Germany-based Symrise AG for $900 million last fall.
Danastasio said her grandfather’s charitable giving has leaned toward opportunities for kids, with an emphasis on education. The gift to MSU and SPS brings that mission together with Darr’s background. The idea for the SPS magnet school came from the Darr family and was refined over the past year in talks with district officials.
“We reached out to SPS and started talking to them about their magnet schools,” she said of the idea for an ag-based program. “Is this a viable idea or is this a totally wild-haired idea? They were just so excited about it. We threw around different ideas about land, and MSU was the obvious choice for us.”
Danastasio said her family believes the magnet school will expand job possibilities for kids in agriculture.
“Just having that hands-on experience of literally getting their hands in the dirt … it really starts to get their brains turning to what other possibilities are there” she said. “A lot of people think about farms and just the ma, pa and the pitchfork. That is not at all what agriculture is anymore. There is so much science to it, there’s so much math and you can even go into the marketing of it.”
Brabo said when the ag school opens for the 2021-22 academic year, it will be the fifth SPS magnet school. This fall, SPS is opening the fourth magnet, Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, in partnership with Springfield Little Theatre.
There are currently 136 kids enrolled in three magnet schools through SPS: the Health Sciences Academy at Mercy Hospital Springfield, the Academy of Exploration at the Discovery Center and the Wolf School at Bass Pro Shops and Wonders of Wildlife, she said. Typically SPS receives around 760 applications for those 136 spots, Brabo said, with students selected through a lottery system.
“The demand is just incredible,” she said. “The application rate completely exceeds our ability.”
She said the magnet schools allow the district to meet all the grade-level requirements for education, but to add an area of emphasis, such as agriculture.
“They are taking real-life scenarios, making connections to what they should be learning and what they want to learn,” she said. “My absolute favorite part of my job is just getting to watch kids latch onto something and get as deep into it as they possibly can.”
Danastasio and Brabo say they’re working on transportation to the school, as currently there are no buses to SPS magnet schools. Danastasio said it’s important to the Darr family that students of all economic backgrounds, but especially underprivileged children, are selected and that the transportation barrier is removed.
Brabo said SPS officials work to ensure magnet schools have the same demographic makeup of elementary schools across the district, with an even mix of male and female students and roughly 50% qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches.
Del Vecchio said MSU is actively fundraising for another $1.5 million needed to construct the center for small animal education, a roughly $4 million project. He said the expansion and Darr’s gift was made through the university’s Onward, Upward campaign.
He said the university also is fundraising to build a livestock show barn and student apartments on the Darr campus, as well as a center for mechanized agriculture programs to emphasize the industry’s use of drones and other technological advances. He said that would represent another $3 million at least in needed funding.
“There’s been a lot of advances,” he said of agribusiness. “Driving a tractor is like driving in a Cadillac. They’re extremely expensive. The costs of staying in business is just astronomical.
“From an education standpoint, efficiency is so important.”
Del Vecchio said the college also is talking with University of Missouri officials on partnering for a veterinary program. Currently, the university offers a pre-vet track.
He also expects the partnership between MSU and SPS to expand with the 150 fourth, fifth and sixth graders coming on-site.
Construction of the magnet school is slated to begin this fall at the Darr Agricultural Center, with Arkifex Studios LLC winning the architectural contract through the Missouri State University Board of Governrs. Danastasio’s husband, Cody, and brother Tyler Hellweg are architects at the firm and also serve on the board of the Darr Family Foundation. MSU’s buildings will follow once funding is secured, Del Vecchio said.
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