Smith Voc lands $2M grant to expand animal sciences


NORTHAMPTON — Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School has secured a $2 million state grant that will enable the school to expand one of its most popular programs, animal science. And if all goes according to plan, the school expects to expand its current student population of 570 students by 25%, according to Principal Joseph Bianca.

“The grant is definitely going to accomplish a lot. It allows us to remodel existing spaces and bring in a concentration for domestic animals — a ‘companion animal’ concentration for breeding, caring and grooming for all of those animals. That is a huge industry right now,” said Bianca. “So when we talk about tracking our students right into careers… all that is part of that growing industry.”

Smith Vocational was one of 14 high schools in the state to receive funding as part of the Skills Capital Grants program, which is designed to help schools purchase and install equipment and make renovations necessary to better support vocational and technical education.

Competitive grant

Securing the grant has proven to be a particularly competitive process, says Bianca, who applied for the grant with the help of Melanie Chartier, vocational director.

“We applied twice before to this program and were turned down both times,” he said.

As part of the application process, Bianca and Chartier were required to submit photos, timelines and projected impacts that show a direct pathway to employment using the state Workforce Skills Cabinet Regional Planning Blueprint as well as labor market information.

The competitive grants are awarded to educational institutions that are able to demonstrate partnerships with local businesses, and align curriculum and credentials with industry demand to maximize hiring opportunities in each region of the state.

Funding for this round of state grants was included in an Act Relative to Immediate COVID-19 Recovery Needs, which was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, and included $100 million in state resources to provide capital improvement grants to vocational high schools and public schools operating career and technical education programs.

The Skills Capital Grants program has awarded more than $153 million to educational institutions in the state since its inception in 2015.

Companion animal concentration

As part of the launch of the new concentration, the school will be hiring a new teacher.

Current students in the animal science program will be able to pick up the concentration during the next school year, said Bianca.

“For those who live on working farms, they’re comfortable with the large animals, but we do have a lot of students who haven’t had experience with a cow or a horse or a pig and they’re interested in animal science but they’re intimidated by it,” said Bianca. “Having smaller animals on campus would give them that first hands-on experience and allow them to move into larger animals more gradually.”

The introduction to the new program focus also comes at a good time as the city of Northampton will be building an animal control facility on the school’s campus — right next door.

“There will be an opportunity for students to work hand in hand with the animal control officer,” he said.

The creation of the companion animal concentration is the first step in a larger strategic plan to one day offer a veterinary assistant concentration, according to Superintendent Andrew Linkenhoeker.

The companion animal program will be housed in the building that was most recently used by Greenfield Community College for its nursing program. The building previously also served as the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.


Funding will also be used to modernize and expand space for the school’s horticulture and animal science instructional labs.

Plans to renovate the horticulture building have been in the works for some time, according to Linkenhoeker. A May 23 fire shifted some of those plans after it destroyed more than half of the 8,600-square-foot building.

“I was planning on talking to the board of trustees to free up some money for this renovation. Now the grant money can deal with the animal science renovations, which allows us to use some of the revolving money that we have for the rebuilding of the horticulture building,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces.”

Renovations to the building housing the companion animal program are slated to begin in two to four weeks, with a completion goal of February 2023.

“Once the students can move in, it will allow us to begin the demolition work on the farm building currently used as a classroom and a nursery and build a new steel structure, on the same footprint, that will become the grooming facility,” he said. Bianca.

All of the animals currently in that space — the rabbits and pigs inside and chickens outside — will shift over into the 1920s-era barn.

Another classroom currently used for the animal science program will be renovated into a “pocket pet lab,” which encompasses small rodents and mammals like hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, ferrets, and guinea pigs.

While these new spaces will provide a modernized learning environment for the animal science program, they also provide unique opportunities for other vocations.

“Our students will do all the interior work, the framing, the electrical, the plumbing — it’s an unbelievable opportunity for the students to learn about commercial-style buildings,” said Bianca.

Equipment replacement

The grant is also helping to replace machinery that is more than 50 years old.

Part of the grant enables the school to purchase new equipment like a dump truck and a backhoe.

“For one, it means safer equipment for our students that has newer features that they’ll see when they’ll go out in the industry,” said Bianca.

The grant will also help the school replace some of its landscaping equipment that was ruined in the May 23 fire.

Linkenhoker said between the building and equipment, the fire caused estimated damages of around $4 million.

Businesses and members of the community have also donated several small hand tools, several of which were destroyed. To date, the school has received $40,000 in monetary and gift card donations to help with the future rebuild of the horticulture building. Plans at this point are still being solidified.

Animal sciences is one of the school’s more popular programs, and many of the animal science students are traveling the greatest distance to attend the program. Bianca is hopeful that expanding the program will lead to higher enrollment.

“Breeding and grooming — it’s a growing industry that we know students are interested in, so we’re giving them that opportunity,” he said. “Our goal is to bring up enrollment to 600. We were there in the ’90s and we think this will help get students back.”

In the future, the school also hopes to provide an equine concentration.

Smith Vocational, which Linkenhoeker says is the oldest vocational school in the state and oldest agricultural school in the country, is the only agricultural school west of Interstate 495.

“We have kids from the New York border, the Vermont border, the Connecticut border and east of Worcester,” he said. “And the longest bus rides are coming here for this particular program — up to an hour and a half each way, every day. It’s one more reason why we want to upgrade and give them the best facilities we can.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at



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