HARRISBURG, Pa. — High school ag teachers have a hard enough job working with teenagers every day.

But their job is further complicated by the need to prepare students for the ag industry’s high-tech — and ever-evolving — careers.

That’s where Pennsylvania’s Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence comes in.

The 15-member commission, which began meeting in January, will develop a statewide plan for ag education and offer recommendations on everything from teacher training to curriculum.

In short, it will look at ways to make ag education better.

“What exactly the statewide model in PA will look like remains to be defined by the commission and the two departments it spans,” said Robert Clark, the commission’s executive director.

The departments of agriculture and education operate the commission jointly.

The young commission is still growing into its role.

During the group’s third meeting, on May 10 at the Farm Show Complex, the agenda was dominated by presentations on the complex regulations that govern ag education.

But the commissioners are also starting to think about areas where they can make a difference for the state’s 7,200 ag students, such as increasing the quantity and quality of the hands-on projects called supervised agricultural experiences.

Rep. Mark Keller proposed the commission in a 2017 bill after ag teachers told him they needed help finding curriculum and getting state approval for their increasing array of programs.

“Agriculture isn’t just about plowing fields anymore,” he said.

The commission will look at both of Keller’s concerns, as well as the development of career pathways for students to enter the food and ag sectors.

The state expects more than 75,000 new or replacement job openings in those industries over the next decade.

Becoming an Ag Teacher

At the commission meeting, it became clear that the question of career pathways applies to ag teachers as well.

Most Pennsylvania ag teachers have an instructional certificate in their discipline — the same kind of credential that an English or science teacher would have in her field.

Instructional certificates require a four-year degree, and only two universities in the state, Penn State and Delaware Valley, have an ag teaching program.

But in one category of ag teaching — horticultural operations — teachers can have either an instructional or a vocational certificate.

Teachers with a vocational certificate don’t need a bachelor’s degree, but they must have four years of work experience in the field and pass a competency assessment.

A vocational certificate is what most career and technology center instructors have, Clark said.

It’s not clear why one ag discipline offers two certification options but the others don’t.

“I think it’s been there a long time,” he said.

Educators have long seen agriculture as a squarely academic discipline, but the bachelor’s degree requirement could turn off prospective teachers with deep agricultural experience.

The group should continue to think about ways to modernize ag teacher certification, said Pedro Rivera, the state education secretary and chairman of the commission.

No matter their path to the classroom, teachers need to have a strong grounding in educational methods and classroom management, said Kevin Curry, a commissioner and Penn State ag education professor.

Without those teaching skills, most will burn out in a year or two.

“I don’t train ag teachers. I train teachers that happen to teach ag,” Curry said.

Commissioner Brian W. Smith, a Wayne County dairy farmer, said he sees value in both an academic degree and industry experience, but “I wouldn’t equate your ability to teach to either one of those commodities.”

Teaching is its own skill, Smith said.

Advisers and Approvals

The commission will also work to reinvigorate occupational advisory committees.

These stakeholder groups help teachers keep up with industry trends.

Committee members can be farmers or agribusiness workers, parents, students, graduates of the program, even ag teachers from other schools.

The committees are required to meet twice a year and must give approval for equipment purchases, said Frank Flamini, assistant director of Dauphin County Technical School.

In Smith’s school district, few members of the building trades advisory committee attend meetings even though the members look to the school to provide them with workers.

“I think they don’t show up because they don’t know how important it is,” Smith said.

Schools can make the relationship more valuable to both sides by bringing committee members in to meet students at career days and mock interviews.

“They are the best guest speakers in class ever,” Flamini said.

Having an advisory committee is one of many requirements for a school to get state approval for its ag program.

This approval isn’t required — about 30 ag programs out of 190 don’t have it — but approval is needed for programs to get state and federal funding for career and technical education, Clark said.

Ag programs also have to be re-approved every five years. Preparing the paperwork for that task takes months.

“I love the process. I hate the process. It’s really robust, but it sets you up for success,” said commissioner Jeff Groshek, principal of Central Columbia High School.

The commission is looking to help schools better prepare for these approvals.

Commissioner Anthony Honeycutt, an ag teacher at Northwestern High School in Albion, decided to maintain his program’s state approval even as the other vocational programs at the school decided to rely on local funding.

When the district went through financial woes, the other programs were cut to bare bones.

“We’re still able to function because we’re bringing in money that pays for a lot of what we do,” Honeycutt said.

Politics

Though the Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence has support from Republicans and Democrats alike, the body became a political flashpoint last October — before it had even met.

Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a bill that would have empowered the commission to issue guidelines about the classes and activities that would count toward a student’s ag requirements.

Wolf, a Democrat, said the bill would have taken the authority to approve schools’ ag programs away from the state Education Department.

Because the agency is the only entity the federal government has authorized to do these approvals, the schools would have become ineligible for that vital state and federal funding, Wolf said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican, retorted that Wolf misunderstood the bill and shouldn’t be worried.

“Since the secretary of education sits on the commission, such guidelines would not be created in a vacuum,” Grove said in a Facebook post.

The discrepancy over the bill remains unresolved, Keller, the state rep who proposed the commission, said this week.

In his Facebook post, Grove also accused the Education Department of dragging its feet on holding the commission’s first meeting.

Keller acknowledged this week that he would have liked the commission to start meeting sooner, but he didn’t want to point fingers.

Choosing commissioners and hiring an executive director took time, he said.

Abby Yoder has her own perspective on the commission’s work.

Yoder, the FFA state treasurer, has attended all three of the commission’s meetings with her fellow officers.

The team members — who not long ago were students in the ag programs the commission is designed to help — even gave a presentation about FFA at one of the meetings.

Hours of discussion about the inner workings of ag education could easily seem boring, but Yoder said the behind-the-scenes look has helped her understand how her high school ag program functioned.

“It’s really cool that we get to sit in on the meetings and see how things are evolving,” she said.

The commission will hold its next meeting in June in conjunction with the FFA state convention at Penn State University.

Phil Gruber is the news editor at Lancaster Farming. He can be reached at (717) 721-4427 or pgruber.eph@lnpnews.com. Follow him @PhilLancFarming on Twitter.