To many, FFA is the face of the next generation of American agriculture. The faces you see in the agriculture classroom today should represent the faces you'll see 10 years from now, at the local Co-op or in the corporate boardroom.
Unfortunately, many of our FFA chapters do not reflect the true make-up of the American workforce. In its most recent survey, only 19 percent of FFA members were non-Caucasian, while the estimated percentage of non-whites in the workforce is around 27 percent.* To ensure that there will be enough people ready and willing to fill the jobs available in the industry of agriculture in the future, FFA membership among non-traditional students must increase.
In 2004, the National FFA Organization, Toyota and Texas A&M University set out to learn how an agricultural education program could be changed to meet the needs of non-traditional students. Together, they launched an “Enhancing Diversity in Agricultural Education” pilot program in three San Antonio-area schools.
Four years later, the results are astounding. The pilot schools, situated in communities with large Hispanic populations, have seen their percentage of Hispanic FFA members increase by as much as 350 percent, with overall enrollment in agricultural education programs increasing by as much as 722 percent.
The success of the program, according to its co-director, Grady Roberts, PhD, of Texas A&M University, lies in its focus on the particular needs of each school's community.
“We can't make generalizations about Hispanic or other minority communities. Hispanic students in different parts of the country are going to have different needs. It's important to tailor the agriculture program to meet those needs.”
Once needs are identified, several additional components must fall into place in order to attract and retain students of all ethnicities. (In San Antonio, a series of informal meetings between teachers and parents and community leaders via alumni/booster organizations served as the needs assessment.)
The project directors used funds from Toyota's grant to send students identified as “opinion-leaders” to local livestock shows and fairs, leadership conferences, the state FFA convention and the national FFA convention.
First, students must be given opportunities to participate in FFA and agricultural education experiences. The project directors used funds from Toyota's grant to send students identified as “opinion-leaders” to local livestock shows and fairs, leadership conferences, the state FFA convention and the national FFA convention.
Once students returned from these activities and began talking them up in the hallways, other students in school took interest.
Second, it is important to establish a group of key stakeholders. Support from parents, school administrators, alumni and boosters is crucial to the long-term viability of any agricultural education program. Stakeholders in the San Antonio project were offered opportunities to attend FFA and agricultural education experiences alongside the students. Seeing first-hand what students are learning and achieving almost always inspires a commitment to the growth and continuation of the program. The formation of the local FFA alumni affiliate also contributed in providing a way for parents to connect to the agriculture program and FFA chapter. Prior to this they had no way to become involved.Involvement from local stakeholders also ensures that the program stays rooted in the needs of those who make up the school's community.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, teachers must be given training, resources and support to build a successful, diverse program. Teachers in the pilot program participated in professional development opportunities such as LifeKnowledge CurriculumIntegration, Texas Agricultural Science Teachers Professional Development Conference and the Washington Leadership Conferences Advisor Program. They were also provided training on FFA awards and degree programs as well as SAE development workshops. Each gave the teachers the skills they needed to engage students of differing needs and goals.
The National FFA Organization hopes to expand the program nationwide in the near future. You don't have to wait for the project to be implemented in your state, though, to begin using some of the lessons learned in Texas to increase diversity in your own program. Roberts says, “The first step is to create an environment that embraces people of all backgrounds, get the students in the agriculture class, and then through whatever means you have available, get them involved. These students will influence and encourage the others.”
*SOURCE: Table 1-7 in the United States Department of Labor,” Chapter 1: Counting minorities: a brief history and a look at the future,” Report on the American Workforce, August 2001, pg. 23.