Panther Trades students may opt to enroll in ‘John Deere University’ portion of the program, where they will learn to work on the manufacturer’s products.

Belgrade High School is about to stick its big toe into the world of vocational training.

Assuming that it receives the blessing of the Belgrade school board in August, the high school will have a student at each of two locations enrolled in “pre-apprentice” programs.

One student is signed up to learn John Deere implement repair at Frontline Ag; a second student will be a pre-apprentice carpenter at R&R Taylor Contracting.

Not everyone can go to college; not everyone should go to college. To that end, “This program will be good for students to learn a hands-on trade, instead of college,” said BHS woodshop/drafting teacher Randy Radke, the district’s “point of contact’ with the cooperating businesses.

Iconic tractor company John Deere is the force behind the movement, pioneering the concept when in 2005 it started its “John Deere University,” an online university combined with hands-on learning.

Belgrade High is tweaking the name to “Panther Trades” and enlarging the scope beyond only farm implements. Frontline Ag is the local John Deere dealership and is a part of the John Deere U curriculum, Radke said.

Frontline Ag in Conrad, Mont., has been part of the program since 2019.

“They start out working on lawn mowers, small engines, then tractors.”

Radke said “R&R Construction (on Love Lane in Bozeman) heard we were doing this with Frontline Ag and they said they wanted to do it, too.”

In 2020, school Superintendent Godfrey Saunders told the Belgrade News that the district was approached after it applied for a Transformational Learning grant from the state to see if it was interested in the John Deere program.

“This is our partnership with a local business,” said Belgrade High Principal Shanna Smith. “It helps us strengthen our partnership with the community. We are in the beginning stages, with only a few students,” and locations.

“We’ll be maxed out at five students,” she said.

“This whole thing is new to us,” Radke added. “We’re learning as we go.”

At the moment, both Frontline Ag and R&R Taylor Construction are fronting their own costs for the program, Radke said.

“This is our ‘starter program;’ we’ll try it for a year.”

The students will still spend their mornings taking core classes at Belgrade High, then spend their afternoons at their business locations. At Frontline Ag, “There’s an online platform, and they’ll be following around their mentor,” Radke said. “It’ll be similar at R&R’s pre-apprentice program. The idea is to graduate and get a job with R&R.”

This is basically a new program, Radke explained, and everyone is learning as they go.

“Our school district is behind this. John Deere came in and did a presentation; Frontline, ditto,” Radke said. “We toured with the parents; we wanted to get the parents on board. Interestingly, the kids were more excited than the parents.

“I can see this whole program expanding; but there’s a lot we don’t know still.”

And how would his dream program expand?

“Oh, auto mechanics, Ford, Chevy would be ideal,” Radke said. “The other trades, carpentry, plumbing, electrical. Nursing, culinary. All the hands-on trades, so you can get out of high school and go right to work.”