The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) is well known for being the site of the only working farm inside the city limits, but other resources at the school recently earned national recognition.

On Jan. 22, CHSAS, 3857 W. 111th St, was named as one of eight Schools of Opportunity by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC)—and one of only six schools among the winners to be named to the gold category.

According to the NEPC, the honor was started in 2015 and “recognizes public high schools around the nation that are creating remarkable opportunities to learn for all their students.”

CHSAS stood out, officials said, because of the opportunities it provides students with special needs and for helping students become involved with the community.

Assistant Principal Sheila Fowler said she is proud because the honor isn’t like the usual academic award.

“For us, it’s just an honor to have the hard work and the work of the students and the faculty recognized on a national level,” Fowler said. “This isn’t something that’s directly tied to test scores and academic achievements, but it takes everything into consideration—both the students’ academics and what they do in the community outside of the classroom.”

According to the NEPC, officials review schools based on 10 criteria, including providing rich, supportive opportunities for students with special needs; using multiple measures to assess student learning; and broadening and enriching learning opportunities. Schools choose six criteria to address; gold schools must demonstrate “exemplary” practices in at least three criteria, and silver schools must do the same in at least two criteria. Winners also must earn “advanced” designation in at least two other criteria.

According to Adam York, NEPC research associate, CHSAS stood out because of the opportunities it offers students who are autistic—including the chance to work at the school farmstand and take the same classes as general-education students—and the life experiences in which students can participate, including job shadowing, internships and a farm-to-table Thanksgiving dinner that the school hosts for senior citizens.

York also noted that students take the PSAT, choose between various agriculture pathways and benefit from both career-technical education and a college-preparatory curriculum.

CHSAS, he said, is “a really neat school.”

“We see a lot of great things happening,” York said, “in terms of community connections. They’re doing a lot of really great things there.”

According to the NEPC, which is based at the University of Colorado School of Education and conducts peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions, there are now 45 Schools of Opportunity.

As part of being selected, schools receive a banner and are promoted by the NEPC. York said the award seeks to shift focus away from test scores and instead on “all these various factors that a school can engage in.”

CHSAS has many impressive features, he said.

“It wasn’t just that they were a farm,” York said, “but that there was all this other great stuff going on there.”

Fowler also noted that the school recently participated in a regional science fair that drew judges from major companies including Quaker Foods and PepsiCo, which gave students a chance to network with potential employers. Environmental science students also visited a farm in Alsip to learn more about regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

CHSAS, Fowler said, offers unique learning opportunities to all students.

“We’re very happy,” she said, “that our students with special needs … can get hands-on experience with animals and work in the greenhouse and work in the food science lab.”

CHSAS had not previously applied for the honor, Fowler said, but officials decided to apply last June. Other schools selected came from New York City, California and Colorado.

CHSAS has received the banner celebrating its achievement.

“It’s a great honor,” Fowler said. “I think it speaks to the type of students that we have here and all the hard work that our faculty does. We’re just very proud that we’re being recognized at a national level.”

According to the NEPC, the application process is underway for next year. For more information, visit the website for Schools of Opportunity.