West Jackson Middle schooler Michael Howard works on a horticulture project for his agriculture education class. The school recently won national recognition for its program.

Making the Grade: Agriculture club wins national accolades

Some folks around the state who went to middle school through the 1980s may remember that one of the various extracurricular activities was a Future Farmers of America club. In 1988, that name morphed into the National FFA Organization, an update that refocused and rebranded clubs across the country and extended their reach into classrooms with curriculums and projects that earn academic credit. Today, members tackle a variety of agricultural and leadership assignments that give them a deeper understanding of food production and consumption, whether they plan to go into that business or not.

Thirteen-year-old Michael Howard is thinking of a career as an agricultural lawyer, a job that may take on increasing importance in the age of genetically-modified, corporately owned food supplies. Some of his inspiration comes from an agriculture class he takes at West Jackson Middle School in Jefferson.

“I think agriculture is very interesting, and it’s fun to learn about animals and horticulture,” he said. “I like it so much, this is my third time taking this class.”

Howard has plenty of peers who sign up for the elective at Jackson where April Davis is in her sixth year teaching the course.

“We cover so much – plants, animals, where food comes from, the importance of agriculture in our nation,” she said. “But we also have units about wiring and electricity.”

With just over 1,000 students in the school, Davis usually gets about 10 percent to participate. “And to be a member school of FFA, you have to have 100 members; we reached that number by the end of September,” she said.

That high level of participation and the focus on agricultural education has made West Jackson one of the country’s top FFA chapters. The school recently won top honors as the 2017 Middle School Model of Excellence at the national convention in Indianapolis. The school captured similar honors in 2015 and was a top-five finalist in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

At the national event, where only 31 schools representing the top 10 percent in country compete, students answered 10 minutes of on-the-spot queries from judges. Jackson was represented by Howard and classmates Savannah Page and Jesse Cronic.

“We had to make a presentation, a slide show that highlighted the 15 activities we’ve done,” said Howard. “And they asked about how our activities were run and how we got word out about them.”

One of those activities was hosting a Georgia-grown taste test to promote healthy food options. Together with the cafeteria staff, the students created vegetable dips for more than 400. The chapter also led a leadership workshop, created an outdoor classroom and conducted an activity around safe cooking practices. It’s those sort of fun activities that make the course attractive to eighth-grader Page.

“We even have done flower design, making boutonnieres and corsages,” she said. “But I signed up because I enjoy learning about animals and horticulture.”

Davis and her students learned that they were contenders for the national honor on the first day of school in August.

“When we found out were were in the top five, we were freaking out,” she said with a laugh. “That made the fourth year in a row. And I’m sure we won because of our students who presented so well at the national convention.”

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