Ag classes gain students but lose teachers
Agricultural education continues to enjoy rising student enrollment in California high schools, but faced with shrinking budgets, many school districts are struggling to accommodate this growth and, in some cases, scaling back key components of their agricultural programs.
Galt High School agriculture teacher Carl Wright, right, helps Joseph Oliveira, a sophomore, with a welding project after school. Like many schools, Galt High struggles with budget cuts as demand for its agricultural program grows.
“What we are seeing is we’re losing teachers and gaining students,” said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agriculture Teachers Association. “Teachers are being asked to do more with more kids, and the classes are absolutely packed.”
Due to lack of funding, he said many school districts are not adding and even reducing teachers, who now have less time to supervise student projects, an integral part of agricultural programs.
Dane White, center, who teaches agriculture at Galt High School, works with sophomores Gabrielle Franke, right, and Sierra Virtue in the school's greenhouse, where students are growing poinsettias.
Teachers at Galt High School in Sacramento County face these very challenges, said Cheryl Reece, an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at the school. Despite having more students in the program this year, Reece said the school district eliminated a part-time teacher and cut the remaining three teachers’ summer hours and time allotted to help students on projects.
Agriculture teachers are usually contracted as year-round employees because they work outside the classroom and the normal school day. They typically have had a full non-teaching class period during the school day to do project-related work, such as maintaining the school farm, picking up feed for livestock and visiting students’ projects at home. They also work during the summer to accompany students to competitions at regional and state fairs and any FFA-related events that occur off campus.
But with cutbacks, Reece said teachers are now forced to compromise standards of the agricultural education curriculum, which consists of three components: classroom or laboratory instruction, FFA leadership activities and supervised agricultural experience projects.
She said the cuts are severely affecting the project and leadership components because most of those activities happen outside the classroom. But they are also what make agricultural education special, she said.
“When we aren’t able to have the time to offer these opportunities to kids, we are no longer meeting our state standards,” she said. “It’ll be like saying we’re going to talk about the theory of football, but we’re not going to play any games, we’re not going to apply it, we’re not going to practice.”
She said agriculture teachers believe in all three parts of the program and will continue to do what they can to serve students’ needs, but they will be stretched.
“We do this because we love it, even if we take this hit,” said Dane White, one of three agriculture teachers at Galt High School. “How do you tell a kid, ‘No, you can’t do this, you can’t have this life-changing opportunity because I’m not getting paid for it’?
“And what does that do to us?” he asked. “Are we going to burn ourselves out? And how fair is it to ask us to perform these tasks?”
The agriculture programs at the Tracy Unified School District in San Joaquin County are taking such deep cuts that FFA chapters at Tracy and West high schools may be in jeopardy, said Nikki Maddux, one of four agriculture teachers at Tracy High. West High has two.
In March, the school district board approved budget reductions that eliminated the 27 extended-contract days each agriculture teacher works, which essentially ended the summer portion of the program that includes competition at the county fair, which is in June.
Maddux said teachers agreed to volunteer two days at the fair—on opening day and show day—but the schools still won’t meet the requirements of an agricultural education program and could lose their FFA certification if they cannot find funding to pay teachers for the extended days.
“When you don’t employ ag teachers in the summer, you cannot have a summer program,” Aschwanden said. “There’s no such thing as an ag-ed program without ag teachers supervising kids.”
In the meantime, teachers and the community in Tracy are trying to find private sponsorship from businesses to save the program, but Maddux said it is not a long-term solution.
“It’s just a Band-Aid, and that’s our concern,” she said. “You know as well as I do that once something’s cut, it’s pretty much gone. It’s awfully hard to have them restore it. I hate to say that, because I’m a glass-half-full person, but if we can’t find an actual solution, the potential for FFA to not be here is highly likely.”
Bob Heuvel, state FFA advisor, noted that among the 303 FFA chapters in the state, four were dropped this year. However, there were also three new or reinstated chapters. These slight shifts are not unusual, he said, but given the increased student enrollment in agricultural education, he worries about the long-term impact of districts increasing class sizes and not adding teachers.
“If it continues, our pool of prospective new teachers will continue to decline, and I can already see a little bit starting in that direction,” he said. “If we can’t hire more teachers, then I think ultimately hard choices will be made about what courses are offered and how many kids can get in those programs.”
Maddux said she has already heard from teachers in other districts whose boards are considering making similar cuts to their agriculture program.
“It’s scary, especially here in this area, because it’s a small world. Other chapters are saying, ‘Our days are up next year,’” she said.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.