The Grade Blog

Saturday, Feb 15 2014 08:00 PM

Ag teachers fear for future of programs

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Newborn twin lambs hang out with mom several hours after they were born Friday. They are taken care of by the Foothill High School ag students and teachers.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Foothill High School sophomore and Future Farmers of America student Jordian Hunter does some book work in her morning ag class before going to Visalia with other FFA students to a seminar.

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    By Casey Christie / The California

    Foothill HIgh students involved in agricultural education Destiny Balboa, left, and Latee Langston, right, do some book work in class Friday.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Foothill High School ag adviser Clay Freeman tosses some feed to some of the sheep that the school takes care of in Bakersfield.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Foothill HIgh School ag adviser Clay Freeman checks on the condition of one of the school's newborn set of twin lambs.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Foothill High School agriculture teacher Clay Freeman walked into an animal stall at the Kern High School District Farm Friday, scooped up a newborn lamb and peeked under its tail.

"Boy," he declared before setting him down and unceremoniously grabbing the sibling cowering behind its mother. "Girl," Freeman added brightly. "One of each."

The lambs had been born just hours earlier, the second set of twins at the 30-acre farm in 24 hours. A ewe in an adjacent stall had given birth to a male and female Thursday.

"These lambs will be used as teaching tools," Freeman said. "We'll take them to class, and they'll be vaccinated there while the kids are learning about immunology."

Foothill is one of a dozen schools in KHSD offering agriculture education, a set of classes designed to expose students to careers in farming, ranching and related industries.

Academic work is completed alongside hands-on experience with growing plants and raising animals. Students also attend local and out-of-town conferences.

Most school districts pay for the classes with funds from the Agricultural Career Technical Education Incentive Grant Program. That's a matching grant program that this year provided $4.1 million to 314 agriculture education programs in California.

In the state budget that Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled last month, the grants designed to encourage compliance with ag education academic standards are eliminated, and that has supporters of agriculture worried.

The funding won't be cut, per se, but the money will be provided in a different way, one that advocates say could put ag education at risk.

"I am very frightened," said Ralph Mendes, agriculture coordinator for KHSD.

Last year, the state switched to the governor's Local Control Funding Formula for funding public schools. That formula did away with most categorical programs -- programs paid for with state money earmarked for a particular purpose such as civic education or high school class size reduction.

Under the new formula, schools get base grants that can be used for whatever the district deems a priority, as well as supplemental grants for assisting low-income students, English learners and foster children.

Agriculture education is a categorical program, so for the moment, schools that get that money can't use it for anything else.

There are 20 high schools in Kern County that offer ag classes for about 5,000 students.

The governor would like to make the categorical money set aside for agriculture part of the overall base grants to schools, giving school districts the discretion to use it however they like.

It's his second run at the ag grants. He tried to remove their categorical program protection last year, but was beat back by the legislature.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office supports the idea. In an analysis published Friday, it wrote: "We believe the governor's proposals are consistent with the LCFF's core principles of increasing local decision--making authority and reducing historical funding inequities across schools. We recommend the legislature adopt these proposals."

Brown's administration is assuring ag interests that funding levels will not drop.

"The governor's budget proposes the same amount of money associated with this program in the current fiscal year -- $4.1 million -- for the coming fiscal year," said spokesman H.D. Palmer. "And second, the 'hold harmless' provisions in this year's budget will ensure that whatever amount a given district is receiving this year for this grant program, they will receive the same amount next year. So if districts believe that this is a priority program, they will have the same amount of money next year to continue it."

The California Agricultural Teachers' Association isn't buying it. They warn that base grants go to all schools, not just schools with ag programs, so the same money eventually will be spread a lot thinner.

"Our kids are going to be subsidizing other districts that never had any of this agriculture programming," said the association's executive director, Jim Aschwanden. "The money's just being thrown into the stew pot and served in with a ladle like anything else."

Another concern is that under the budget proposal, ag programs would have to compete for funding against expenditures such as teacher raises, sports, art and music programs, ag teachers say.

That probably won't be a problem when the economy is strong and resources plentiful, said Foothill's Freeman.

"The mystery is in knowing what the future holds," he said. "In lean years, or for small districts that don't have big budgets, agriculture could wind up behind a lot of other things."

Mendes said that at KHSD, at least, there are no plans to eliminate ag, but Freeman would prefer not to have to justify buying hay for sheep as the district is prioritizing.

His students say they would be sad to see ag education cut back because it has enriched their high school experience.

"I really enjoy it," said Jordian Hunter, 16, who in the course of raising hogs for competition decided to pursue a career related to animal science. "I like animals, and I'd like to do some kind of hands-on work with them."

Even students who don't aspire to careers in agriculture say they have benefitted from the program.

Mario Chiquito, 15, wants to be an engineer, but credits his ag education leadership training with giving him more confidence for activities such as public speaking.

"It's helped me to meet people and be more involved with things like community service and setting a good example for others," he said.

Supporters of ag programs say they aren't afraid of accountability as they go up against other potential spending options. The California Department of Education oversees the grants, and all sorts of controls are built in to make sure they're spent appropriately.

But advocates want a strong, rich agriculture program to be a mandate, not a choice.

"In my experience, schools are motivated by one of three things," Mendes said. "They do what they're required to do by state or federal law, they do what they have to do because it's a graduation requirement, or they do what they've got money for."

Agriculture isn't a legal or graduation requirement, but right now there's a dedicated pot of money for it, he said.

North High School ag teacher Elizabeth Bledsoe said she doesn't fear ag programs going away as much as diminishing.

The best ones require Future Farmers of America membership and provide access to tools, equipment and ongoing teacher development training, among other things.

If those elements are whittled away, what's left will be a shadow of what's available now, Bledsoe said.

"It's the quality that will change. It just holds us to a higher standard," she said.

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