Chapter and class initiatives bring leadership experiences to all types of student
Sometimes, student leaders spring from the most unexpected places. In Connecticut, Rebecca Isaacson’s FFA program includes student leaders with autism and other disabilities. In North Dakota, Dan Spellerberg’s program includes the children of seasonal workers who contribute a lot to the program each year during the time they are there.
Certainly, both of these programs include more traditional student officers and other leaders as well. The foundation for their success in Leadership for All lies in a strong program focused on the three circles of agriculture education: FFA, supervised agricultural experience (SAE) and instruction. In addition, both have specific leadership programs aimed at nurturing leadership skills in every student in the classroom.
“We actually have a leadership class, which is unique in Connecticut,” says Rebecca Isaacson, a teacher at Middletown Regional Agriculture Science and Technology Center in Middletown, Conn. “The class meets once a week, and the students run the class, leading mini chapters and filling mini offices. It allows kids who may not be running for an office to fill a leadership role. Students who find success in the leadership class often run for office in the future.” Isaacson also requires that 100 percent of her students participate in FFA and maintain an SAE.
Dan Spellerberg’s FFA chapter is in just its sixth year. Spellerberg started the chapter as a young ag teacher at Southeast Region Career and Technology Center in Oakes, N.D. “We started with just 25 kids, and now we have close to 130 on our chapter roster,” he says. “We make sure we hit all the leadership workshops in the state. Those opportunities have been really positive for the kids and have helped to grow our leaders. We’ve even started our own leadership workshop for junior high students that we host here every year. We believe that nurturing leadership and involvement in younger kids will help them develop a passion for FFA and get involved.”
In addition to mentoring his high school students and nurturing the interest and leadership of 7th and 8th graders, Spellerberg opens his class to a diverse student base, which in North Dakota, involves the children of seasonal workers. “They follow along the same course as all the students, and they’ve been just as successful as the rest of the kids,” he says. “Our FFA chapter is student run, and we depend on all our students.”
Like Spellerberg, Isaacson has found a rich source of student leaders in diverse student populations. “Many times, students with disabilities make the best leaders and have the most to gain from the leadership experience,” she says. “One student who will compete at national convention this year has Asperger’s syndrome (a form of autism). We’ve had other students with autism who have found success in leadership roles, as well. One former student became the chapter treasurer, and despite his obvious social difficulties, he was an excellent officer. One student who used a wheelchair due to Duchenne muscular dystrophy was a national finalist for a Proficiency Award in agriculture mechanics. Having students with disabilities in the chapter also helps our typical students gain leadership skills by assuming mentoring roles with them.”
This combination of intentionally pursuing leadership experiences and actively welcoming a diverse student base has resulted in significant successes for these chapters. In Issacson’s Connecticut program, surveys of students five years after graduation has shown than 99 percent of the students would recommend their high school ag program to others, 80 percent went on to secondary education (significantly higher than the school’s general population), 50 percent are employed in agriculture, and 90 percent are employed and contributing to their communities.
In North Dakota, Dan Spellerberg has been gratified by the success of his students in just the past five years the FFA program has existed. “I now have four American Degree recipients within my chapter, and I’ve had a lot of success stories,” he says. “Some students have purchased and run their own ranch, others are farming over 2,000 acres, and others have pursued varied degrees in the ag industry and the food sciences industry. A lot of local colleges now are very excited to come in and talk to our classes; they know the quality of students they can find here.”
Spellerberg and Isaacson have developed quality students through active use of FFA, SAE and instruction focused on leadership. By running these focused, student-led programs, and by including all types of students in leadership opportunities, these teachers have found a way to develop successful leaders and build highly successful programs.