Trent Coates found out that having an advisory committee is not only a necessity—the Perkins Act requires that every program have one in order to qualify for federal funding—but it’s also a luxury. When he started four years ago, the CTE teacher from Elko, Nev., discovered that fact wasn’t a revelation so much as it was a relief.
With about 250 students in the Elko program—or, as Coates puts it, “a million, it feels like”—he quickly realized getting overwhelmed by his duties looked like a distinct possibility. But, thanks to guidance from his advisory committee, Coates was able to assert control and avoid any looming disaster—so far.
“I’m still pretty new and so we haven’t had anything blow up on us yet, but I really lucked out,” he says. “When I came here, there was already a committee in place and things were running pretty smoothly.”
Peace of mind is just one of the benefits afforded by an advisory committee, recommended in the National Quality Program Standards for Secondary Agricultural Education as just one part of a successful program. Program advisors say in addition to help lessening their load, an outside committee lends credibility and visibility to their programs, acts as a sounding board, provides much-needed outside perspective, and—perhaps most importantly—gives students a connection to potential future employers.
“This job is a ton of work to do by yourself, and there are only so many hours in the day,” says Jared Hyatt, a teacher for 14 years, the last seven at Douglas High School in Minden, Nev. “If you want to get everything covered, you need to get help. I view my committee as a support system. They are there to help get more for the students and program. If they weren’t around, less would ultimately get done.”
Like the Elko committee—which, in addition to Coates, counsels two other teachers—most meet just a handful of times annually. Typically, those meetings occur at the beginning of the school year around the holiday break and during the spring. Time is spent setting goals and assisting in charting a course to achieve them. “We talk about the direction of our program, and they share their ideas and concerns,” says Coates. “We talk about our fundraisers. We discuss what employers are looking for—who’s hiring, who’s not. It’s like a sounding board.” Advisors also say they keep informal contact with their committee members with periodic phone calls or by just catching up in the line at the grocery store.
In Coates’ case, because he was new to the job, he found it especially helpful that some advisory committee members had long tenures, providing him with some much-appreciated institutional knowledge. “In a lot of cases,” he said, “they already knew what worked—and what didn’t.” But he adds that it’s not the committee’s program to run. “That’s my job,” he says. “I see the committee as a sounding board.”
Hyatt says the committee helps legitimize his program inside the school community and out. When taking an issue to the school administration or asking for additional funding, he says things always run more smoothly when a parent or member of the business community from the committee advocates on behalf of the program instead of himself or a student. “That’s just the way it goes,” says Hyatt. The same is true when the program needs a hand from outside the school. “My committee often knows people and resources that I wasn’t aware of.”
Douglas High School didn’t have an active advisory committee when Hyatt arrived at the school, and his first step in creating one was to find people in the local community with common interests as well as parents and volunteers who had supported the program in the past. When Hyatt asked people to serve, most were receptive. “I think people just see it as another way they could help out.”
Hyatt stocked his committee with business owners (one of his members owns a nursery) and trade workers from local weld shops. “I wanted this committee to be a representation of the town that we lived in, and that way you are supporting your taxpayers,” he says. “Plus, I was trying to pick people that might be perspective employers. If a kid graduates, he should be able to get a job in the town he went to school in.”
Coates, who has seven members on his committee in Elko, wants to soon add another member from a local community college that has an agricultural education program, hoping to benefit those students looking to further their education upon high school graduation.
“Ultimately, what we’re doing is preparing students to be productive members of society,” Coates says. “We expect them to know these things.” But they don’t, and he says having an advisory committee takes the guesswork and mystery out of the workplace.”