Many label today’s high-schoolers as part of the “Microwave Generation,” or those who find identity in the latest technology and expect the instant gratification that comes with text messages, mp3s, Facebook and Twitter. These kids often expect to be entertained and have more options competing for their time than generations of the past.
How do you as agriculture educators recruit these students into your programs? And with a constant “entertain me” attitude, how do you retain the best and brightest students once they’ve become members?
Another characteristic of this generation is that they tend to believe what they hear from their peers. And since many agriculture teachers would agree that word of mouth is the best recruitment tool, this is a good place to start. But successful recruitment and retention takes more than a “build it and they will come” attitude. “Make it fun, and put in the planning time,” says Becca Wherry, who teaches at Greenbriar in Arkansas. That’s the best way to get students involved and talking about your program.
Programs that recruit well often have a plan that includes student leadership, community involvement and outreach, fun events, and general promotions of their program’s unique opportunities. But before a strong recruitment plan can work well, Tara Berescik says it all starts in the classroom. “We push and market the classes first,” she said. “Kids take the classes and then get interested in FFA.” When Berescik began teaching agriculture at Tri-Valley Central in New York, she found herself with 12 active FFA members and 17 agriculture students. Today, she and her teaching partner have nearly 200 FFA members in their chapter and see nearly 500 students in their agriculture classrooms every year.
The Tri-Valley program started in 1951 with a teacher who led the program well in its first 30 years through traditional agriculture courses. But the program had experienced tremendous teacher turnover in the years preceding Berescik. When she came on board, she started teaching new classes, such as pre-vet and horticulture, and added a strong community service component to the classroom. “I knew that once students really got involved, they would see the travel and opportunities and bring others in.”
“We started getting active in the community,” she said. “In my second year, we set the goal that every student would give 200 hours each year to the community, starting in 7th grade. Today, most who graduate in the program have well over 2,000 hours in community service.”
Wherry agrees that it starts in the classroom. “They love anything hands on. The shop and greenhouse are attractive.”
Ping pong tournaments between classes sure don’t hurt, either.
Wherry and her two teaching partners also focus on recruitment through two main events, led primarily by the chapter officer team. First is an orientation night, where all first-year members compete against each other in a game night that often hosts 200 students, parents and family members. “We try to make the activities fun, whether the students have athletic ability or not,” says Wherry. And secondly, the chapter hosts a Christmas party where FFA members can bring their non-member friends. Once they see how fun and exciting FFA is, they want to join, too.
This “Microwave Generation” eagerly shares unique opportunities through word-of-mouth promotion, which is where Lucille Shaw at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences credits the growing interest in the school. The school accepts 150 new freshmen each year, which is less than 15 percent of total applicants. All 600 students in the school are FFA members enrolled in one of five unique career paths: Animal Science, Agriculture Finance & Economics, Food Science, Horticultural & Greenhouse Management, and Agricultural Mechanics & Technology.
Shaw said it’s the unique opportunities that make students excited to come to the school. “They learn more about the world through our learning approach and opportunities through the National FFA Organization,” she said. The school is currently arranging a student exchange with Poland. Polish students will stay with students for a month, and Chicago students will head to Poland for a similar opportunity. “Other students may have that opportunity at other schools, but for our students to study about their economic system and how they produce their food – it’s just amazing. We approach it from a different perspective.”
What else do these experienced teachers say about recruiting and retaining students in your agriculture programs?
- Alumni can serve a vital role as you recruit students into your programs. They provide job shadow opportunities, help conduct chapter and community events, and even serve students when they need financial help to join or attend a conference.
- Career fairs and open houses can be effective, but it may be even more effective to have promotional materials ready at basic community service events. When parents see an organization doing great things for young people, they want their students to join.
- Officer teams build their leadership skills and demonstrate influence when they plan and execute recruitment activities, whether it’s speaking to younger students or planning fun events for the chapter.
- Reward active students for getting active and staying involved through trips or events that result from a specific goal. Show appreciation for their dedication by providing meals when appropriate.
- Use the local media and scrapbooks to document and promote your activities. Students are proud to see their advertisements recognized, while parents and community members gain a stronger appreciation and support for what you do.