Primarily due to poor student grades and failing test scores, Florida’s Hawthorne Middle/High School was facing possible closure in March 2018. The school’s principal, Daniel Ferguson, believed that bringing back Hawthorne’s agricultural education program could help turn everything around and keep the school’s doors open – and he was right.
Today, Hawthorne is home to a thriving ag program that includes approximately a third of the school’s enrollment, or about 125 students, along with a strong FFA chapter that’s continuing to grow.
“Relaunching ag education and FFA helped give these students a sense of pride in their school and in themselves, and I think that’s a big reason it’s worked so well,” says Michael Cassels, head of the school’s agricultural science program and the Hawthorne Middle/High School FFA advisor. He’s also a former member of the chapter.
To participate in FFA, students must have a GPA of at least 2.0 – an obvious incentive to keep their grades up. According to Cassels, the idea of building their chapter from the ground up is what gives many students the motivation to do whatever it takes to stay active in FFA.
“Many Hawthorne students say they have a feeling of ownership over our chapter,” he says. “It’s something they feel proud to be part of, and they want to see it succeed.”
The Hawthorne community wants to see the chapter succeed, too, which also inspires FFA members to work hard. For example, a local cattle farmer donated $10,000 to help supply fencing for Hawthorne Middle/High School’s 19-acre land lab, and several members pitched in to help Cassels complete the labor.
Thanks to ag students’ continued efforts, the school’s land lab now includes raised bed gardens filled with produce that’s served in the school cafeteria, along with a chicken coop, pig barn and plenty of cattle pasture.
Cassels says there’s much more to come, with FFA members currently working on new projects like a greenhouse and a drip irrigation system. For students like Tyler Roberson, being an integral part of the chapter’s rebuilding process is one of the most rewarding aspects of his FFA experience.
“I love being in FFA, and it helps me stay focused and on track because I know I have to do well in school to stay in it,” says Roberson, a sophomore who has been an FFA member since the chapter relaunched. “The work I’ve done in FFA, like rebuilding fences and putting up livestock pens in our land lab, makes me feel accomplished and like I’ve done something positive for others. Those good feelings, plus Mr. Cassels’ encouragement, motivate me to keep pushing forward.”