The C.S. Monroe Technology Center, tucked away on Children’s Center Road off Catoctin Circle in Leesburg, has always been something of a hidden resource.
But for Loudoun students interested in pursuing agricultural, forestry, horticultural or veterinary careers, increasingly Monroe’s Loudoun Governor’s Career and Technical Academy provides instruction in biotechnology and horticulture programs that offers a jump start to college and future careers.
Instructor Deborah Chaves oversees the Biotechnology Foundations and Applications in Agriculture courses. In addition to classroom time, students work in Monroe’s greenhouse labs, sometimes at the Inova Loudoun Medical Campus in Leesburg, and participate in outdoor and off-site work projects. They also take part in competitions at the local, state and national level, including the Loudoun County Regional Science Fair.
The Environmental Plant Sciences course, also a one-year program guided by Chaves, introduces students to career opportunities in horticulture and provides a well-rounded background in a variety of plant production. The students gain firsthand knowledge of plants by raising them in greenhouses at the school, and also attend lectures at Northern Virginia Community College, engage in a variety of field events and outdoor labs, and related field trips.
Seventeen-year-old Loudoun Valley High School senior Abby Hemby is enthusiastic about the environmental plant science course. “It’s a great program,” she said.
“My focus is on plant soil,” she said, noting predictions that by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on earth. “Soil’s pretty important, that’s why I’m interested in sustainable agriculture.”
This every-other-day course is pretty rigorous. “It’s challenging but worth it,” she said, noting that her teachers at Loudoun Valley High School are understanding and supportive.
She plans to attend the Governor’s School of Agriculture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in the fall.
Abby hopes to pursue a career in agricultural education—maybe at the federal level with USDA, or a state extension office, or “in a school like this,” she said. She’s also interested in exploring the future uses of intelligent machines in agriculture, such as using drones to collect plant data.
And what makes Monroe special is that, “You’re at school with people who love the same things you do,” she said.
Another Environmental Plant Sciences student, Hannah Jeong, a senior at Freedom High School, came to Loudoun with her family from South Korea three years ago. She’s attracted to the laboratory and scientific side of plants. “I have more curiosity about science,” she said, noting she’s eyeing a career on the national or international level, such as with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
Biotechnology students Hunter Almond, a senior at Woodgrove High School; Lauren Munno is a junior at Heritage High School; and Alexa Knoell, a senior at Tuscarora High School, said they liked the variety of classes offered at Monroe.
Hunter noted the freedom and independence given to students. “It’s like a college; it’s what you want to learn—you chose it,” he said. Lauren agreed. “We have the chance to expand our knowledge.”
Chaves got high marks from the students for treating them as adults, for setting a professional atmosphere and affording the opportunity for independent research. “We can’t thank her enough, she cares about us individually,” Alexa said.
As to their career choices, Hunter wants to work in the farm industry, as a foreman or manager. He already has a paid internship with a landscaping company. Lauren wants to study microbiology and immunology. Her end-goal is to be a lab assistant, to make vaccines and find cures, she said.
Alexa intends to transfer to Virginia Tech in the fall from Northern Virginia Community College, to enroll in its animal and poultry science program with the ultimate goal of a veterinary career.
The courses at Monroe are funded by a number of donors who support the programs with scholarships, and the twice-yearly plant sales, that feature vegetables and hanging baskets grown by students.
Noting the Monroe center has evolved over the years, Alexa said, “If you know what you want to do—come here.”