Around the country, teachers and schools are doing what many thought impossible: involving 100 percent of their agricultural education students in FFA membership and leadership opportunities. While this is no small feat, these schools aren’t overachievers; after all, having every student as a member of FFA and involved in leadership development is one of FFA’s seven National Quality Program Standards.
“We find many, many chapters that have 100 percent membership and involve every student,” says Larry Gossen, senior team leader for FFA state relations. “If we truly believe in an integrated model of agricultural education, which includes classroom instruction, FFA and SAEs, why would we want to deny any student the opportunity for leadership development?”
Pilot program looks at dues alternatives
Clearly, one barrier in many states to achieving 100 percent FFA membership involves required student dues. From that fact grew a national FFA pilot program called Program Affiliation. The pilot FFA program charges a school fee based on the school’s enrollment, but no dues per student. “As a student in a Program Affiliation pilot school, you pay no dues, and you become an FFA member when you enroll in an agricultural education class,” Gossen explains. The program is in an early pilot phase this year at chapters in Mississippi and Florida, to be followed by a larger pilot in more states and chapters in 2009.
“After the two-year pilot, the national FFA board will examine the program. If it moves forward at that point, it would be an optional program,” Gossen says. “There is no intention for this to replace the dues structure completely, but we hope to make it an option for those who believe the students should not pay dues for an integral part of their classroom instruction.”
Even if a school’s FFA membership is a work in progress, teachers can take steps to increase involvement and leadership along the way. “If you can’t get everyone in FFA, can you get every student developing leadership skills? Look at the standards and see which ones you can meet,” Gossen says. “We develop leadership activities for the classroom, and every student should be able to participate in those. The focus is on every student, every classroom, every day.”
In California, the state provides an agricultural incentive grant to schools with 100 percent FFA involvement and who also make SAEs a graded portion of the class. Since this money allows the schools to pay for each student’s FFA dues, most Californian high schools feature 100 percent FFA membership among their agriculture students. Yet though the membership hurdle is easily met there, teachers still work hard to reach every student, every day.
“There’s a difference between 100 percent membership and 100 percent involvement,” says Hugh Mooney, north coast region FFA advisor in California. “I don’t think we have a program in the state with 100 percent of its members fully involved in FFA, but we have a lot of teachers working hard at it.”
Mandy Garner at Galt High School in Sacramento County, Calif., is one such teacher. “We incorporate leadership right into our curriculum,” she says. “If we’re doing an activity where students have to present, we teach microphone skills or public speaking strategies, too. We also compete in a major FFA activity each school year in class.” At Galt, freshmen participate in the opening/closing ceremonies contest, sophomores compete in parliamentary procedure, juniors take part in the science fair, and seniors enter the marketing plan competition.
By making FFA activities and leadership development such an integral part of classroom instruction, Galt High School has built one of the largest and most active organizations on the school’s campus. “This past year, students logged more than 1,500 community service hours, competed in FFA contests all over the country, worked fundraising events with more than 400 community supporters in attendance, and had the opportunity to attend more than 50 FFA activities at the local level,” Garner says.
Garner’s students represent a broad spectrum of her community. “Our student body is nearly half Caucasian and half Hispanic, and we have students living in town, on ranchettes and some large farming operations,” she says. “We strive to provide availability for all students to participate.” Galt High School offers a school farm, greenhouse and shade house for animal and plant projects, as well as a number of opportunities for projects in parliamentary procedure, public speaking and career development. Many students conduct the business of the chapter by serving as a committee chairperson, greenhouse officer or chapter officer.
Diversity in a student body is more a rule than an exception for agriculture educators today. “The demographics of students are different than they were 25 to 30 years ago,” says Mooney. “We attract a lot of students other than those living on a family farm. Community service is a big part of a lot of very involved chapters, and that’s a part of national chapter awards that any student can participate in.”
Elk Grove High School, also in Sacramento County, sits in the fastest-growing city in the nation, and its agricultural program has transitioned from an originally rural program to one that is entirely urban today. To meet its students’ needs, the agricultural program has evolved as well, with classroom instruction and experiences that meet FFA standards and provide urban students with an excellent background in both agriculture and leadership.
“The program at Elk Grove now has a strong agriscience focus, and we offer sequential curriculum that is University of California-approved,” says Alyssa Mangan, an agriculture educator at the school. “We have a strong history of student involvement in both FFA leadership development and community service activities. We also have an extensive on-site school farm where approximately 200 students have their livestock, horticulture and aquaculture projects.”
In addition, each student achieves 10 percent of his or her classroom grade from FFA participation. “The expectation is that all students are involved in a minimum of eight FFA activities per semester. These can be meetings, field days, community service, fundraising or many other activities,” Mangan says. The six agriculture teachers are, she says, “kid magnets” who lead by example. “We believe our love of and involvement in the program is contagious!”
Mangan suggests one key to getting kids involved in FFA is to focus on their freshman year. “That first year is extremely vital, because it builds the foundation for each student’s FFA involvement, ambition and destination,” she says. Current students conduct an FFA orientation program for all incoming agriculture students and their parents as well as a huge FFA summer barbecue to which incoming freshmen and their families are invited.
Gossen agrees. “Every teacher has a story about a student whose life was positively impacted by FFA; students who needed the most help and got the most from it,” he says. “The question is, how do you identify these students when they’re freshmen? How do you know which ones need it—which ones you can make a difference for? The only way is to provide the opportunity to every student, and give them the chance.”
It’s simply one part of focusing on the needs of every student, every day, in every classroom. “We hang our hat on the idea that FFA is the premier leadership development program for students in the nation,” he says. “Do we really believe that? It doesn’t mean that just because a student is an FFA member, we want them to be at every event or go to every convention. What we want is for every student to have a chance to grow and develop.”
The National Quality Program Standards and tips for involving students in FFA can be found on the Educator’s page at www.ffa.org.