By Geoffrey Miller
In a 2011 edition of the National Association of Agricultural Educators’ The Agricultural Education Magazine, Dr. Jamie Cano and Warren Agner tackled the importance of diversity in agriculture classrooms head on. Nationwide, the diversity of students who compose agricultural education classrooms, they wrote, is far askew from the diversity in general education classrooms. In particular, Cano and Wagner focused on Latino students in the U.S. Despite the incredible upward shift in number of Latinos of the U.S. in the past few decades, Latino students retain the “lowest level of education and the highest dropout rates of any group of students.”
Latinos, of course, are not the only underrepresented group in the American agriculture classroom. For various factors, local FFA chapters across the country can have an unbalanced diversity of members based on gender, race, religion, financial status, learning ability or sexual orientation. Nationwide, Cano and Wagner wrote, only six percent of high school students in 2009 studied in agriculture courses.
Finding the solution to the imbalanced measures of diversity is more important than merely demonstrating equal opportunity. Instead, Cano and Wagner wrote, it is about applying a basic tenet of successful societies: agricultural education must tap the intellectual potential all students to achieve the most.
“Agricultural education enrollments must resemble the diversity of this country, of local communities, and of individual schools,” Cano and Agner wrote.
One FFA advisor who is facing the challenges of ensuring a diverse membership is Kenneth Georgia of the Attala County FFA Chapter in Mississippi. With a chapter based in the county’s vocational center, Attala faces an interesting task: potential agriculture students and FFA members must come from one of three high schools in the county with differing populations. One is city-based and features a student split in diversity, a second is rural and has primarily a black population, and a third is rural and has primarily a white population.
On top of culture differences and high school allegiances, Georgia is re-building an FFA chapter and agricultural education system that he says had become an afterthought in recent years. He’s now in his second year of teaching at the Kosciusko-Attala Vocational-Technical Center.
“One of my biggest challenges has been getting past what was basically ignorance of agriculture education in the community,” Georgia said. “I’ve had to work with school counselors to show them agriculture can provide science credits. I’ve had to talk to large and small groups of students about how agriculture can help them in the future.”
Once in the classroom – a struggle sometimes because students must travel to the career center and have tightly packed school schedules – Georgia says his classes have had a litany of diverse agriculture types thrown at them.
“We’ve made cheese in class, we’ve used the greenhouse, we’ve partnered with a farmers market and we’ve had farmers from the area come talk to students,” Georgia said, also noting that his FFA chapter is expected to get along and behave like a family. Already, Attala County has a state title in the FFA Creed speaking contest and placed second in a state horse judging contest. Georgia expects the chapter to grow by adding more supervised agricultural experiences, expanding career development event participation and staying extremely active in the community.
“It’s all about exposing the kids to the career opportunities they have and the job skills they can learn in agriculture,” Georgia said. “Their background is important, but it’s their future that most counts.”