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Ag concerns growing quickly for students

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By Todd Martin

The concern about changes about the agriculture program and classes planned for Shelby County and Collins High Schools next year brought a large group to last week’s school board meeting and a detailed My Word piece from two SCHS students that ran in Wednesday’s Sentinel-News. Students and some members of the community are worried that what the schools have decided to offer isn’t what the students need and that the number of teachers won’t be sufficient to cover the amount of material covered now. With the new school opening, the two teachers at SCHS will be split, with one Ag teacher at each school.   One major concern they cited is the lack of an Agriculture Power, Structural and Technical Systems career cluster offered through the current program. James Neihof, the district’s superintendent, noted the community’s concern and commended those that spoke and wrote the letter. “The high school principals, members of the Board of Education and I are very appreciative to the students who came to the board meeting last week,” he said. “I look forward to sharing more of the history of the process with them personally in the upcoming days.” Along with that, Neihof wanted to assure the students that they will, indeed, still be getting the same level of education, and, hopefully, an even better set of career tracks. Currently, Shelby County offers the skill standards test in three career clusters: Horticulture, Production Crop and Production Livestock. Curriculum changes Now, the principals have asked the Shelby County High School Site-Based Decision Making Council to consider offering Horticulture, Agribiotechnology and Animal Science to align both the schools. These tracks were chosen based on the input from a July 3, 2008, meeting that included Brett Reese, Brittany Edelson, John Wills, Jack Kimbrough and David Neville and was designed to establish a clear focus for agriculture education as the district moved to two schools. “That meeting served as a catalyst for all planning that has occurred since that time,” Neihof said. These new career clusters still offer classes with much of the same instruction, and, Neihof said, will hopefully put the students on stronger career paths. Neihof said the goal for the schools is to provide what’s best for the students. “Does this mean that taking a class in mechanics or welding or carpentry is wrong? Absolutely not,” he said. “In fact, these are all valid options. However, they should be kept in perspective and should be components of a Career Major.” Each of the three new career paths the school has suggested to the SBDM offers elective courses that encompass classes in machinery operation or maintenance and carpentry. “Students who decide that they want to have extensive training in mechanics or machine tool technology will be encouraged to take classes in those fields at the Shelby County Area Technology Center and to declare a Career Major in one of these areas instead of, or in addition to, a Career Major in agriculture,” Neihof said.   Expanding Ag Current SCHS Future Farmers of America President Derek Slucher said he is worried that the program is contracting. “Kids today don’t know where their food comes from,” he said. “Preventing agriculture from being taught is hurting our future. Without introduction at a young age, kids may not go into agriculture.” Contraction and moving away from hands-on experiences have been a common theme, Neihof said. However, he said he agrees and that both are not areas of worry. “In fact, this is exactly why I have asked both of the principals to look into ways to offer some of the most recently approved courses that are designed specifically for agriculture students,” he said. Two of these new courses are Agriculture Math and Agribiology. The math class was designed by Kentucky teachers and can be taught this year, he said, as a fourth match credit and Agribiology can be taken as a life science credit. “Offering these courses requires that agriculture, math and science teachers work together,” Neihof said.  “I realize that learning to teach these new courses will be challenging for teachers in all three disciplines, and I assure them and our community that our high school principals and I are in favor of offering the needed training to our teachers so that they are able to offer math and science credit to students who would like to earn those credits by applying mathematical or scientific ways of thinking to solve real-life problems.”   From one school to two By splitting the two teachers, it seems that the number of classes and those able to get into those classes may be limited. Judy White, who spoke at Thursday’s meeting on behalf of her two children and the farming community, said she was concerned because she knows students are turned away from classes already because they are too full. “Now they’re taking away small engine and some others,” she said. “Those might be the only classes that some of these kids relate to.” Neihof also added that change is possible. “Course offerings change regularly,” he said. “If a course is not offered in a given year, it doesn’t mean it won’t be offered again.  “The Kentucky Department of Education offers sample plans for how a teacher can offer multiple career majors.  “A three-year rotation allows for multiple career majors to be taught by one teacher. I believe [Horticulture, Agribiotechnology and Animal Science] to be a good starting point that encourages our students to focus on obtaining career major certificate and successfully completing the Skills Standards Test in one of these three areas.”   Class sizes Neihof said the SBDM council and principals often have a difficult job of deciding where to use the teachers allocated to a school. The school is also bound by teacher pupil ratio. Shelby County operates at a ratio of 25-to-1, while the state requires at worst a 31-to-1 ratio. After the students and members of the community spoke at last Thursday’s meeting, the board thanked them for their commitment and concern for the agriculture program, and reminded them that their voices will not be lost. “I commend those that came out and those that spoke,” board member Sam Hinkle said. “We don’t engage in give and take during public comments, but we do listen.” Neihof noted that he will respond to the board based on that input and other conversations he’s had with the community. “Notes were taken and the board charges me to respond to them, so this doesn’t fall on deaf ears,” he said. Neihof said he will respond by the end of next month, leaving three meeting times, Feb. 25, March 11 and March 25.