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Students, community work to expand ag education

FFAThe passion of FFA student leaders at Sibley-Ocheyedan has launched a unique fundraising campaign to expand the school’s agriculture education program.

The FFA leaders want to see their highly successful agriculture education program continue to grow, but worry about the toll it’s taking on second-year instructor Brian Gottlob (pictured with students, preparing a video to promote the chapter and help raise funds for an additional instructor).

Around 150 high school students — more than half of the student body — are enrolled in agriculture courses, and the FFA chapter is 123 members strong.

"The number of students in our program is a significant load, particularly for a young teacher," said FFA member Marissa Pham, noting that student leaders are taking on additional responsibilities to help Gottlob stretch his time further.

"While this provides us good leadership opportunities, it concerns us that our particular program could lead to teacher burnout," she said.

Approaching the board

Pham and three other FFA leaders stood before the Sibley-Ocheyedan school board last December, asking the board to consider funding a second agriculture education teacher for the 2015-16 school year. A second ag teacher, they said, would allow the school to offer more in-depth agriculture courses and expand its FFA program to the middle-school level.

"If we would have been given the opportunity to explore the FFA program as early 6th grade, the impact would have been very positive in each of our lives," said senior Mystic Henningsen, Sibley-Ocheyedan FFA’s vice president. "Knowing this, we are motivated to improve the lives of those who follow us."

Promoting other areas

Additional agriculture classes could also be used to promote cross-curriculum work in math, science and reading, added FFA Chapter President Josh Wagenaar.

The school board ultimately decided that a second agriculture teacher wasn’t possible due to budget constraints. However, the students’ request resonated with community members, who organized a steering committee to investigate the possibility of privately funding the position.

The committee’s goal is to raise about $400,000 to cover all expenses of a second instructor for five years. After some debate, the school board approved the concept if the fundraising effort is successful.

"It’s going to be something sustainable," said Brian Kemp, an Osceola County Farm Bureau member who is serving on the steering committee. "It can’t just be one or two years."

Exploring new horizons

Gottlob inherited a successful FFA program from long-time Sibley-Ocheyedan ag teacher Mike Earll, who retired two years ago. The chapter has kept up many of its long-standing activities and traditions while also working to incorporate new ideas under Gottlob’s leadership.

"There’s a whole bunch of exciting stuff going on," said Gottlob, a former South Dakota FFA state president. "The kids started realizing I’m always up here at school, and we’re still not capitalizing on all the opportunities out there."

Knowing that Sibley-Och­eyedan once employed two ag teachers, the students wondered about the possibility of bringing the position back. Gottlob directed them to meet with local banker and FFA supporter Karl Bormann.

"I told the students they would have to lead it. I didn’t really have a part in it," Gottlob said. "I’m very impressed with these kids. That’s the most impressive part about being here, to see what the kids are accomplishing. I don’t know how many of these campaigns of this size have been led by students in high school."

Bormann, who works at Sibley State Bank, advised the group to make their case to the school board, which they did in December.

Student-led effort

"To me, the cool thing is it was the FFA leadership team that came up with the idea," said Kemp. "To keep up, (Gottlob is) spending hours and hours at school. The kids were perceptive enough to see what’s going on there."

The committee is about halfway toward meeting its fundraising goal, which it hopes to complete as soon as possible so the school can advertise the job opening.

"I sense the enthusiasm is really high in the agriculture community," said Kemp. "I think it will allow (the FFA members) to do what they’re doing better, and allow them to get into some futuristic areas like digital farming, drones and international agriculture."