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Va. middle schools embrace agriscience education, FFA
By JANE W. GRAHAM
DUBLIN, Va. (Sept. 6, 2016) — As a group of Dublin Middle School students inspected their freshly-built greenhouse in the first days of the school year, they shared why they chose the agriscience class.
“I like to help the world be better, to have a better environment,” Addie Crigger said.
Kylie Chrisley said both her sisters had been in FFA, and they encouraged her to enroll in the program.
“All my family farms,” Kelsi Pack added. “I like livestock.”
The new agriculture classes at Dublin Middle and Pulaski Middle School in Southwest Virginia’s Pulaski County joins the growing number of counties in Virginia to include agriscience in their offerings to middle school students in six through eighth grade.
Students in the middle school agriscience path are also eligible for membership in the FFA, one of the two leading farm youth organizations in the nation. 4-H is the other group.
“Across the state there are 65 middle school agricultural education programs,” Charles B. Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education, reports. “Within the 33 school divisions that offer middle school agricultural education programs, 55 schools had an active Virginia FFA Chapter in 2015-16, with 2,732 middle school FFA members statewide.”
These younger FFA members have been eligible to compete their high school counterparts but starting in 2017, Brandon Monk, director of the state FFA program, said FFA members in seventh and eighth grades also will be allowed to compete on the national level.
Monk who works from Virginia Tech, birthplace of FFA, said Virginia is very unique in offering the program. He estimated that about five states are doing this. He said that nearly a third of Virginia FFA members are now middle school students.
In the 2012-13 school year, Signal Knob Middle School near Strasburg, Va., in Shenandoah County, was named the Top Middle School FFA in the nation, Monk said. Last year it was among the top five.
Jacqueline Roller-Ryan, agriscience instructor there, said three activities she believes were key to her students winning the achievement.
One is in the community development category. Her students conduct a FFA Veterans Day Breakfast with about 200 veterans as special guests. She said there is a keynote speaker and POW/MIA ceremony conducted by chapter members and a band.
“The band plays, it’s very unique, a lot of emotion,” she said.
The chapter also takes part in the national Veterans Wheelchair Games when the location of the event is close enough to attend. The members have volunteered at these events in Richmond and Philadelphia, Roller-Ryan said.
The chapter also has a stream cleanup event at least two days a year and a study of water in the Shenandoah River, which runs beside the school. This is done in conjunction with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
At Dublin Middle School, the new agriculture classes will occupy the space used for decades to educate farmers, said Jennie Simmons, who has taught for 12 years in the agriscience department at Pulaski County High School. At Pulaski Middle School, the agriscience educator, Sarah Jo Jones, will teach one semester of agriscience while Simmons will be teaching two semesters at Dublin Middle.
Simmons and Mike Cox, who retired from PCHS after 30 years as an agriscience instructor and is a past president of the National Association of Agriculture Educators, said the reality of agriscience in Pulaski County has been long time in coming.
Simmons, a former student of Cox and then colleague, said they have been working for years to encourage the local school board to find the money for the program. Cox estimated it has been 15 or 20 years in coming.
“I’m tickled to death it’s happening,” he said.
“It was a pleasant surprise back in the spring to see it put in the budget,” Simmons added.