Think of SAE projects, and you’re likely to envision your hardest-working students striving for state and national awards. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s important to remember that SAEs can provide critical learning experiences and career opportunities to students well beyond the chapter boundaries.
Whether it’s an uncommitted student walking into an exploratory agriculture class, a kid who tends to be a low achiever in other academic areas, or teens who spend more time on city streets than rural farms, all agricultural education students respond well to and learn from SAEs. The projects have a unique way of reaching out to students, teaching classroom concepts through real experiences, and finding opportunities for higher education and jobs beyond high school graduation.
John Neyhart teaches agricultural education classes at the Monmouth County Career Center in central New Jersey. It’s a unique center in which John is one of four who teach agricultural subjects to students with special needs. Younger high school students come in the morning for exploratory classes, while juniors and seniors come in the afternoon for more specialized subjects. These students, most of whom are struggling in regular classes or attending a special education program, are not your typical SAE standouts. Yet Monmouth County Career Center has a good share of proficiency award submissions and winners.
“I encourage our kids to do SAEs. I submit state proficiency awards, and one of our students was a silver award winner for national proficiency in turf management,” Neyhart says. “That student worked for a lawn care company, started his own lawn care business, and worked for the school taking care of the grounds during the summer. He graduated in June and is now working for Beacon Hill Country Club, pursuing a career in golf course management and taking courses at Rutgers.”
Many of the Career Center’s students pursue their own businesses, using SAE projects that focus on entrepreneurship. Students also work for the parks, landscapers, flower shops and garden centers, and have even done research on the effect of various fertilizers and the efficiency of natural v. artificial turf on a football field. The school’s four agriculture teachers and principal work hard to provide opportunities for all of their students, and they are currently a part of the FFA’s National Quality Program Standards pilot.
“SAE projects have to be interesting to the students, and then they can take what they learn in the classroom and go out and explore some things, keep records of what they do, and think about what they might want to do with their life,” Neyhart says. “They do very well. These kids may not have the best test scores, but they have work ethics. They really work hard.”
For many of Neyhart’s students, an SAE can do more than win awards or scholarships—it can pave the way to a better future. “I remember one great student, Jed, who worked at our county golf course for his SAE. Jed was a good kid but had some significant disabilities. Yet here’s this golf course superintendent willing to get him a job as a seasonal student worker,” Neyhart recalls. “The first year, Jed got lost on the course all the time. With the help of many people, we helped him learn the course and the jobs, and now he’s full-time with benefits, working for the county park system.”
Students in the heart of cities and suburbs are another group that seem unlikely candidates for an SAE. Yet Gretchen Dingham of Tri Valley High School in Pennsylvania says cities offer a wealth of SAE opportunities. Dingham taught for 10 years in Philadelphia before moving to her current school.
“Students are students no matter where they are,” says Dingham. “My students in Philadelphia still wanted to know about agriculture.” Dingham includes SAEs as part of her course expectations for all students, whether they are in a full-credit agriculture class or just exploring an elective. She says that in a city, you just have to be a bit more creative when planning an SAE.
“It’s a little more difficult in a city, but my school in Philadelphia had a working farm right at the school, and we were able to find great SAE internships at places like the gardens and the zoo,” Dingham says. “You just have to know where the opportunities are in your community and take advantage of them.”
No matter what obstacles your students face, and no matter how unlikely a candidate for an agriculture program he or she seems to be, SAEs can make a profound difference in students’ education and future career opportunities. Helping a student focus on his or her interests and tapping into community resources for employment and experiences can make “out-of-the-box” SAEs rewarding for students and teachers, alike.