Ag ed paves way to work, college

Wa-Hi's agricultural education students hone their skills in a real-world environment.

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— Walla Walla High School's halls are empty for the summer, and from the front of the school, campus seems quiet and deserted.

Walk around to the back of the vocational education building, though, and you'll find a thriving farm. Between the greenhouse, the barns, the metal shop and the herd of sheep, Wa-Hi's agricultural education program has everything it needs to give students a hands-on look at careers in the agricultural sector.

While some students might take the summer as a chance to relax, many agricultural education students use the time as an opportunity to practice the skills they've learned in class.

For the agricultural education teachers, it makes for a busy summer -- attending professional conferences to better their skills, checking in on individual student projects and supervising student work on the farm.

"I spent eight hours shearing sheep yesterday," said teacher Lindsey Butcher with a smile.

Butcher is one of the three teachers in the agricultural education program, where she offers courses in metals fabrication, veterinary medicine and agricultural science. She grew up in Monroe, Wash., where she started raising cows at age 9.

"I thought about (teaching) in high school, but I never thought that I could do it," she said, explaining that she's generally a shy person.

Still, she attended Washington State University, where she got a degree in agriculture and her teaching certificate. After a period working for the Department of Agriculture, Butcher moved to Walla Walla when her husband got a job here. When a teaching job opened at Wa-Hi, Butcher decided to apply, and she's been teaching ever since.

"For the first couple of years the kids didn't know who I was yet," she said. Students would walk into her metals fabrication class and say, "You're the teacher?" After a few years, Butcher said her students "started trusting that I did know what I was talking about."

Jessica Johnson is another of Wa-Hi agricultural education teachers, though she's also taught classes at Lincoln. Johnson grew up in Walla Walla and went through the agricultural education program when she was in high school. She took some classes at Walla Walla Community College before transferring to the University of Idaho and finishing her degree in agricultural education.

Johnson said she loves teaching agricultural classes because they're hands-on. She describes herself as a visual learner and can relate to students who have trouble learning in a traditional classroom environment.

"There's no better way to explain a biology concept than with our school farm, because it's right there in front of you. You can actually see it happen instead of just reading it out of a book," she said.

Butcher agreed, and said that many students get excited about welding because it allows them to apply things they've learned in math and science classes. They enjoy working on self-guided projects, and love giving the results as gifts to friend and family.

"That's fun to watch the kids take the skills that they've learned and actually produce a product that they're proud of," she said.

Student enthusiasm is one of the rewarding parts of Johnson's job as well. Last year, she taught floriculture at Lincoln and found that once students warmed up to her, they couldn't wait to dive into class projects.

"Every time I would get there I would already have students in my class during their lunch, wanting to get started," she said.

Agriculture classes also allow students to develop soft skills, such as self-direction and time management.

"Some of the kids come in and think they're just gonna learn how to weld, but they learn so much more than that," said Butcher.

In her experience, Johnson has found these skills are often the most valuable for finding jobs. Employers will readily hire someone who can act responsibly and manage their time, even if they need to be taught a specific method of working with metals. A good agriculture program, in her view, allows students to become more responsible.

"By the time they come out of this program, they've learned what it means to put their effort into something and see what comes of it," she said.

Wa-Hi's agricultural education program is one of the best in the state, and Butcher and Johnson work hard to keep it that way.

Both regularly communicate with community college professors to make sure their courses are teaching students the skills they need to earn college credit. The program also has a community advisory board, which helps ensure that curriculum is modern and addresses the needs of local agricultural businesses.

"The community really believes in this program," said Johnson.

Butcher said the school district has also been key to the success of the program.

"Our district is really supportive in making sure the kids are getting the skills needed for when they graduate," she said.

The program also requires students to complete a supervised agricultural experience, often by working for a local farm or business, and participates in FFA, which provides leadership development opportunities. All together, these aspects make for a dynamic and diverse program which transcends stereotypes about what agriculture is.

"Ag is not just the typical cows and plows. It's so much more than that," said Butcher.

The diversity of experiences offered in the program has paid off. Many students go on to pursue college degrees or work using the skills they learned in class, the teachers said. Wa-Hi's FFA chapter has also been successful at local and national competitions, winning awards in a variety of areas.

"I don't know how many state champions in tractor driving we've had," Butcher laughed. "A lot."

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