I visited Winters High School in Winters, California, on a whiplash rainy day in early December. The so-called Pineapple Express, the intense rainstorm that drenched Northern California, was soaking the walnut and almond groves, filling dry creekbeds with raging waters, and starting conversations about the likelihood of the rains offsetting the effects of the intense multi-year drought.

Winters High is home base to about 500 students, within a rural agricultural community of about 8000. About two-thirds of the students are Hispanic, 30 percent white, and the rest a variety. Just about all the kids in town attend the school; in fact most of the kids in town have been together in the same class since kindergarten.

Formerly dry creekbed full after the rains

Besides growing nuts, area farmers grow stone fruit, grapes for wine, olive trees, gorgeous vegetables and citrus. The famous agriculture campus at the University of California at Davis is east of Winters about 12 miles. Winters is bigger than nearby Esparto, with its small but casino-wealthy Native American tribe (which is a strong supporter of its public library, by the way) some 15 miles north. And it is way bigger than Yolo, population 450 and 25 miles to the northeast, also appropriately (and perhaps affectionately) referred to as Little Yolo, to distinguish it from the surrounding Yolo County. Driving from one town to another, you pass groves, fields, storage silos and distribution centers.

As a supplement to its standard academic instruction, the school has started a modified version of the “career academies, ” the career technical education programs, which Jim wrote about here in Camden County, Georgia. In the 2400-student Georgia school, core academic content is infused into the career and technical courses. In smaller Winters, with fewer resources and teachers to go around, the core courses and specialty track courses co-exist, with teachers doing as much as they can to meld them together.

Agriculture is ubiquitous in the lives of everyone in Winters, so it was an easy call to focus on a track for agriculture, along with two others, culinary science (relevant in this farm-to-table locale; students already cater events in town) and engineering, which has proven extremely popular.

Students in culinary class making seasonal latkes

Nearly half of all the Winters students are enrolled in the agriculture classes, which include a vast array of options, from an intro course in the history, economics, and production of California agriculture, to courses on ag business and management, farm practices and operations, including machinery operations and management, animal and plant science, all kinds of shop offerings, FFA participation, which includes public speaking, report writing, and parliamentary procedure, and agriculture leadership training. And floriculture, in which  students are already doing arrangements for a local business Christmas party. The offerings looked extraordinarily thorough and also really interesting and fun.

A student with her wine barrel cooler

I visited the off-campus “Ag site,” named for Joe Aguiar, the father of the mayor of Winters, Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, just a few blocks from the main high school. It is set in a big warehouse space, next to the farm fields (which were so soggy that we had to save a visit for a dryer day). The students grow tomatoes, pumpkins, and ryegrass, grapes, almonds, peaches, and plums. Next year, with the help and guidance of local farmers, they are planning to start an almond orchard.

One group of freshmen was busy making black walnut and maple cutting boards, of which many would probably find their way under Winters’s Christmas trees.

Two other students gave me a demo of their welding, and Principal Paul Fawcett walked me through the computer aided design systems that students could program to make metal items.

Students welding at Winters High School

The products the students created and made were impressive: industrial-size barbeque smokers, fire pits, outdoor metal house decorations, coolers made from wine barrels, lighting for the school football field. Winters students regularly excel in FFA speaking competitions as well. In such a small school, students become renaissance people of sorts: a cheerleader who welds firepits; a valedictorian-ballerina who wins honors at the FFA speaking contest.

Principal Paul Fawcett with a barbeque made by one of the students

Back at the high school, I talked with half a dozen seniors and a junior in the school’s small cafeteria about life in their small town, their school, and their families. Having visited many schools by now, along our American Futures journey (see here, here, here, here, and here for contrast) I was struck by a few distinctive characteristics of students in Winters: how reflective they are about their sense of themselves as a bonded community of classmates, and what growing up in their small town has imprinted upon them.

Most of the kids have been together since they started school. Indeed, Greg Moffitt, the principal of the elementary school told me that this continuity is highly valued in Winters; when the town grew enough to warrant having two elementary schools, they decided that rather than split the kids into two different schools, they would split the campuses instead into sites K-3 and  4-5, thereby keeping the kids all together. Moffitt is principal of both.

The high schoolers said their knowing each other so well—all the foibles and moments (good and bad) since kindergarten—has made them close and accepting of each other. If the occasional bullying comes up, they told me, it is normal for them to take initiative themselves and stop it in its tracks, with what they described as a “we don’t do this here” sense.

A student with his metal shop work

I was struck by a kind of judgment-free nature of these kids. They come from a variety of socioeconomic beginnings and upbringings: children of custodians and professors, of fruit packers, warehouse workers, librarians, mechanics, corrections officers, and managers. Some knew exactly what their parents did for a living, and others weren’t quite sure of the companies where their parents worked. Some lived in blended families; others not. They were of means or of very little means. Some were first-generation Americans, and others' families went very far back. All this was described in candid terms; they all seemed to know most everything about each other already; none seemed to express any judgment one way or another on each other’s comments. This struck me as a rare expression that can’t be taught but must simply be experienced to attain.

Being high schoolers, the kids also had a wry sense of their life in small-town Winters. They could detail all the changes: “It was a big deal when they took out the blinking light and replaced it with a stoplight!” one described, detailing the ceremony involved, with much of the town in attendance. And “Dollar General is coming! And a hotel!”

“There used to be cool things here,” one said, and they all added to the list: a train, a movie theater, bowling. The students described their school as the proxy for all those experiences now. “School activities keep us real busy,” they agreed.

The students also chronicled the improvements in the schools on their watch: younger kids getting iPads, advisories in the middle school. And they decried that they would miss the renovation of the high school (sorely needed to the 60-year-old structure.)

There is more improvement to come. Paul Fawcett outlined some of the prospects underway: cooperation with Solano Community College, just up the road, to have a presence on campus, which would offer courses to the high school students (and other town residents) for college credits; a greenhouse for the ag programs.

I asked about the occasional arrival of new students among their tight-knit classes, wondering how that might work out. They described, somewhat poignantly I thought, that it was a big deal when a new student showed up. “We LOVE them. We fight to be their friend.”

The students admitted they knew their lives had been sheltered by small-town life. There was a kind of push-pull tension they described about leaving for college. They were eager to go; they knew it would be hard to leave; they wanted to get away; they could imagine a day when they might want to return.

One more remarkable point about the Winters students: Compared with those at nearly every other school I have visited, Winters students showed a distinct absence of college-admission mania and stress. Principal Fawcett told me they reached their 100 percent goal last year for every senior to make plans for post-graduation. Many go to some of the many campuses in California's 3-tiered system: the University of California campuses, the Cal State system, or the state Community Colleges. Some go into the military, and a few go out of state, including to Ivy League schools.

With its sense of itself, its big dreams, aggressive funds-seeking, committed faculty, smart, nice students, and supportive community, Winters High School is an impressive public high school.

* To read about and sign-up for our new American Futures email newsletter, see here. Or just go straight to the sign-up here.