When Matthew Eddy, agriculture instructor for Southeast Polk Community Schools in Iowa, wants to consider some big goals, he looks to his advisory committee.
“We work with the Iowa State Fair to provide support for their annual learning center at the fair,” Eddy says. “The opportunity came up that we could care for some of those animals year-round and step up to a larger leadership role with that facility, but to do that, the school felt we needed to find a place for the animals first. At my advisory committee meeting, I presented what the state fair wanted to do and why it would present a tremendous learning opportunity for our students; the advisory committee members looked around and said, ‘Yeah, we can make that happen.’ Now we have facilities in place to house these animals year round. Next, the committee will help establish curriculum, and we’ll have a lot in place to start an animal science program.”
Housing animals. Advising on curriculum. Locating financial support. Influencing key decision makers. An advisory committee can do all this and more. That’s why it’s an important part of the National FFA Organization’s National Quality Program Standards.
Just recently, Grand Lake High School in Cameron Parish, La., was asked to participate in the National Quality Program Standards. “The first thing the standards required were to meet with your advisory committee and develop priorities,” says Grand Lake agriculture instructor Scotty Poole, who runs the school’s agricultural education program with instructor Kim Montie. “We didn’t have an advisory committee at the time, and we honestly didn’t understand their purpose.”
Poole’s opinion changed once he began working with an advisory committee.
“Once we got them together, everyone had great ideas with all sorts of resources from their various backgrounds,” Poole says. “It was like a feeding frenzy of ideas.” His three-month-old advisory committee is made up of people with agricultural, educational, parenting and business backgrounds, to reflect the community as a whole.
Ideas are more than welcome as the school faces challenges beyond the typical program issues. Located in the “heel” of Louisiana’s “boot,” Grand Lake High School sits in southwest Louisiana, about 20 miles from the gulf and about the same distance from Texas—and was directly in the path of Hurricanes Rita and Ike. “We took a direct hit with Rita in 2005 and a sideswipe hit from Ike in 2008,” Poole says. “In our parish, we lost three schools with Rita, and our enrollment doubled overnight. We also lost our barn and some other facilities here, and we’re trying to work with FEMA, insurance companies and grant programs while serving a very diverse group of kids.” Partly in response to the changing student population, the school has eliminated its fourth-year agriculture program, will soon eliminate its third-year program, and is replacing those classes with specialty courses that will cater to the students’ diverse interests, as well as the community’s needs.
“We do a lot now with landscape design, which is a big need since everyone’s homes and landscaping were damaged or destroyed in the hurricanes,” Poole says. “Many of our students literally lost their homes with Rita, and some of them lost them again with Ike.”
The hurricane chaos delayed the formation of Grand Lake’s advisory committee, but now that the group is in place, the teachers are very glad to have it. Louisiana’s educational standards are changing, and the agriculture program needed to let students know that the Agriculture I and II classes count as a science credit under the new guidelines. The advisory committee helped brainstorm ideas, leading to a student project of creating marketing brochures for counselors to use with students and parents.
The advisory committee at Grand Lake was also instrumental in influencing opinions during school construction plans. The limitations of the agriculture program’s current space were discussed at an early advisory committee meeting, and members spread the word among administrators, school board members and other opinion leaders. “The next thing we knew, a whole new wing for the agriculture and FACS departments was passed at a school board meeting with the funds available!” Poole says.
Eddy’s advisory committee in Iowa has been similarly helpful. Though the group initially intended to meet about twice a year, they currently gather every two to three months to focus on a big goal: adding an animal science curriculum and a second teacher to the program. “Our strand now is based on horticulture, greenhouse, turf and landscape, but we have a lot of student interest in animal science,” Eddy says. “That’s one reason I started the advisory committee, to help us become a two-strand program.”
The National Quality Program Standards have helped lead the Southeast Polk advisory committee. “We use the NQPS worksheets to see where our program is at now and where we’re headed,” Eddy says. “We used the Standards as an assessment tool and gave ourselves marks. I really like those Standards; it’s a snapshot that helps you look at what areas we’re doing well and where we can improve. And they get everyone pulling in the same direction.”
With the animal housing issue resolved, Eddy’s advisory committee is focused on helping him develop animal science curriculum for the new program proposal. “They’re definitely exceeding my expectations,” Eddy says of the advisory committee. “They’re an excellent sounding board for my ideas of what the program can become, and they are prepared to take our ideas up the chain of command when we’re ready.”
Both Eddy and Poole say the advisory groups are more valuable than they could have imagined. “I think it’s one of those things that’s easy to put off when you have other priorities,” Eddy says. “But having an advisory committee is definitely one of the things I wish I would have pushed for a little sooner.”
Poole concurs. “We were thinking an advisory committee was just a formality we had to put in place,” he says. “We were pleasantly surprised and even shocked at how receptive the group was and the value that they’re already providing to our department. It’s been a really good thing.”