Chester County Leaders Plot to Prop Up Ag Education

3/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

Times are lean in the Octorara School District.

And with enrollment in the district’s ag program decreasing, ag education has become a target for cost cutting.

District Superintendent Tom Newcome said he sees the justification for dropping one of the district’s ag education positions from full time to part time. But it doesn’t make him happy about it.

“It’s the largest industry in the state. We need to do a better job of exposing our students to the opportunities in agriculture,” he said.

It’s one reason Newcome has joined the nonprofit Chester County 2020 group to not only come up with a long term vision for ag education in the district, but also a more secure way of funding it.

A meeting was to be held this week, barring bad weather, to form a group focused on coming up with ways of providing private funds to support ag education within the Octorara School District, one of the last in Chester County to have a working FFA chapter.

The idea of forming a group came up this past fall, when Newcome called the executive director of Chester County 2020, William Stevens, inquiring about an alternative model to fund ag education within the district.

Stevens said he immediately saw the value in the idea since Chester County 2020 focuses mostly on land use in the county and he sees agriculture as a major part of the county’s future.

“Ag land is a critical part of the equation. They (farms) play an economic and environmental role. Farming needs to continue to be a viable industry for ag land to continue to exist,” Stevens said.

Reaching out to students at a young age and educating them on farming careers, he said, not only has a potential economic benefit, but also benefits students by giving them an option that might not be available anywhere else.

“Some students thrive in more hands-on situations, some in the classroom. Ag education makes a home for kids who might not otherwise have a home,” Stevens said.

Private-public partnerships to fund ag education is not a new concept. In Schuylkill County, a group called AgSTEM formed in 2009 to raise funds to bring back ag education within the Blue Mountain School District, which lost its ag education program in 1999.

The AgSTEM program right now is focused on educating elementary students about farming, through field trips and bringing animals into classrooms. The program is funded entirely through private money from volunteers and the hope is to get young students interested enough in agriculture to eventually justify bringing ag education back to the high school.

Although no concrete plans for Octorara School District have been laid out, Stevens said the idea of getting to students at the elementary level might be something worth thinking about.

“I think what AgSTEM has been trying with the 4-H project could be something that could be directly translated into the elementary and middle school programs at Octorara, especially if a roster of sponsors could take cost out of the equation,” he said.

One idea being floated around is an ag expo, perhaps in April, to increase awareness of ag education in the district and to highlight some of the things current students have been working on.

Stevens said he’s gotten support from the Chester/Delaware Farm Bureau to put on the event and hopes to get local businesses on board as well.

“We’re going to get it out there and have the first of what we perceive as recurring annual events,” he said.

Between 30 and 40 students in the district take classes through the school’s ag production and ag management program, according to Newcome.

One of the district’s two full-time ag teachers is planning to retire at the end of the school year, and the district’s board has decided to cut that position from full time to part time.

Newcome doesn’t expect this year’s expo, if it’s held at all, to be a money-maker, but rather an educational piece for the community.

“I have board members that would very easily drop the program. Part of my process is not only getting our students, but also our adults to understand how important ag is,” he said, adding that he plans to bring the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Mobile Ag Lab to the school sometime this year.

Stevens hopes the effort will eventually lead to a program that is able to meet the needs not only of students, but also the community as a whole.

“I don’t think the program is going to diminish. But it certainly won’t grow until we have more support in place,” he said.

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